1038 Welcome to the sacrifice zone

All Fracked Up! The costs of LNG to British Columbia
by Alice de Wolff and Delores Broten (editors)

Comox: Watershed Sentinel Books, 2020
$30.00 / 9780995328655

Reviewed by John Gellard

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“What are you reading?” asked a highly educated neighbour.
“A book about fracking,”
“What’s fracking?”
“How do you heat your house?”
“With natural gas.”
“Ah, well you might be curious about where the ‘natural gas’ comes from.”

The Montney Basin, a deep shale formation of 130,000 sq km, straddles the northern BC/Alberta border. It underlies Fort St John, Dawson Creek, and the lower Peace River including Site C. The loose shale contains gas formed from the remains of creatures alive millions of years ago. Smaller shale basins are the Liard, Horn River, and Cordova Basins.

The Montney Basin. Map courtesy CBC

The gas, mostly methane, is extracted by Hydraulic Fracturing, aka Fracking, which has replaced the conventional method of drilling down into the shale and pumping the gas straight up. With Fracking, you drill about 3 km down past the aquifers into the shale to the ‘kickoff point’ where you turn the drill horizontally and drill for another 3km or so into the shale. Then you perforate the pipe and inject huge amounts of water, chemicals and sand (fracking fluid) at high pressure to fracture the rock and push gas into the shaft. The gas rises to the surface and is piped to its destination.

The drill bores are lined with steel and concrete so that aquifers and ground water are not contaminated. The fracking fluid is reclaimed and reused or safely disposed of. At the end of the fracking pad’s 40 year life, the drill holes are sealed with concrete, and the farm land is restored to its original state.

Frack fields in northern BC. Hayley Dunning photo, The Tyee

Fracked gas is expected to meet all of BC’s needs. As well, there is said to be a huge market in Asia. We can pipe gas to Kitimat and Squamish, liquefy it, and export it in large tankers.

The Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) industry was predicted to be hugely profitable, providing 100,000 jobs and $billions a year in government revenue.

What could possibly go wrong?

The euphemistically titled book All Fracked Up! examines all the possibilities. It’s a remarkable collection of articles, stories, analyses, and vignettes by well known, respected writers, edited by Delores Broten and Alice de Wolff, and published by Watershed Sentinel Books. The subtitle is The Costs of LNG to British Columbia.

Co-editor Delores Broten at Comox Bay. Photo by David Kattenburg
L-R: contributor Maude Barlow and co-editor Alice de Wolff at Union Bay. George Le Masurier photo
The hazards of the fracking process. Courtesy BC Medical Journal

First, it’s startling to find out how many jurisdictions have banned fracking: five provinces of eastern Canada, two Australian states, the entire UK, Argentina, Uruguay, five European countries, and six American states including Washington, our neighbour.

Here, briefly, are the problems. Fracking destroys farmland, carves up ecosystems, and intrudes on First Nations territories. Fracking uses enormous amounts of water, sand, and chemicals, and contaminates aquifers. Poisons in the fracking fluid cause health problems for humans and livestock. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas. Poisons in escaped gas and flared gas cause health problems. Fracking causes earthquakes. The market for BC LNG is weakening, especially in Asia. Government subsidies to the LNG industry eat up tax dollars.

Let’s see how these problems are dealt with by some of the contributors to All Fracked Up!

“The fracking frenzy in BC is a recipe for water disaster,” writes activist Maude Barlow. Fracking uses a lot of water. Present consumption for fracking is about 8 billion litres per year. After 2030, that could rise to 20 billion litres, which is what the city of Vancouver consumes in two months.

Water for fracking seems to take precedence over water for irrigating farmland. Fracking companies build small dams all over the place and direct streams to their own wells. This exacerbates drought and the risk of wildfires.

Then there’s the problem of the “flowback” of used fracking fluid containing harmful chemicals like benzene, and heavy metals dissolved from the shale. This fluid has to go somewhere, and too much of it finds its way into groundwater and aquifers. The poisons cause illness and birth defects in humans and livestock. Several contributors give the shocking details, and Barlow concludes, “Now is the time to stand up for a water secure future in British Columbia.” So far, the government has not been active in water conservation. The UN calls the water crisis “the scourge of the earth.”

Contributor Ben Parfitt

The fracking industry “gobbles up farmland” as well as water. Journalist Ben Parfitt looks at Farmington, near Dawson Creek, where one new well pad might cover 20 acres, so that 25% of a farm is bulldozed and put out of service. The area is cut up by new roads, and sand is mined and used in the fracking fluid. There’s a double page picture (page 86) that shows a pristine landscape pitifully carved up by fracking pads and roads.

What about air and light pollution? Farmer Brian Derfler calls Farmington “the land of the northern lights,” referring not to the aurora, but to ignited natural gas roaring out of the flare pipes. The burning methane exacerbates global warming, and the poisonous impurities remain in the air.

Andrew Nikiforuk, contributor

Shale is prone to earthquakes. Since fracking began, there have been several damaging earthquakes around Fort St John. Rupture of disposal wells spreads pollution in aquifers and ground water. The Site C Dam is being constructed on the shale, and a risk of earthquakes is certainly a problem there. Journalist Andrew Nikiforuk writes that the government is doing far too little seismic monitoring.

How is the gas to be transported to Asian markets? It will be piped to the coast, to Squamish or Kitimat where it will be cooled to -162 degrees Celsius and liquefied, then loaded into tankers each carrying up to 80,000 tonnes of LNG. The cooling and compression will require electricity, fresh water, and sea water. Imagine one of these tankers going down Howe Sound. Is there any government oversight to protect the public against mishaps? The US Coast Guard enforces 3500 metre “Hazard Zones,” but apparently Canada has no such regulations.

Caleb Behn. Photo by Zack Embree, courtesy Prince George Citizen

Several contributors remark on how little attention is paid by the government to the dangers and risks of fracking. “The northeast has been made into a sacrifice zone,” says Caleb Behn, interviewed by journalist Carol Linnitt. Behn is Dane-zaa from the Treaty 8 area. He describes how the health of his people is harmed by fracking, and how the culture is being destroyed by the highly-paid shadow population in the industrial camps. The government’s uncaring “crass manipulative rhetoric is the saddest reflection of what our province [and country are] becoming.”

Eoin Finn. Photo by Margot Grant, courtesy The Coast Clarion

Is there a business case to be made for the LNG export industry in BC? Eoin Finn, Ph.D., MBA, argues in detail that there really isn’t. The electoral promises of 2013 have fallen flat. Instead of having a $100 billion heritage fund, BC struggles to balance its budget. We do not have a significant competitive advantage, especially with the softening of the Asian market, and the spectacular reduction in the cost of wind and solar power. Mitchell Beer likens our pursuit of LNG to a giant Ponzi scheme where investors selling out are paid with funds from deluded new investors.

So, All Fracked Up! is an enlightening insight into the state of the LNG industry. The consensus among experts is that we should get out while we can. There’s a wealth of information and analysis. It’s an excellent reference book that readers will want to turn to time and time again. Therefore, let me offer a couple of criticisms. First, I suggest a much more robust binding. My copy has fallen apart already. A strip of duct tape down the spine worked wonders. Secondly, we need an index to find people, places and events at a glance. Thirdly, the excellent pictures need captions. As for typos, the only one that stands out is the “Dediction” to Richard Wright.

Christoper Pollon. Christopher Cheung photo, courtesy The Tyee

Let’s end with a graphic story, put together by journalist Christopher Pollon and friends from Blueberry River First Nations. The title is “Death by a Thousand Cuts.” It’s based on a Dane-zaa myth, “In the beginning there was water.” The problem for the first Dane-zaa was that “giant fearsome animals roamed the new earth.” The hero Tsááyaa drove the monsters underground. Peace reigned. Eventually the white man came and gradually took over the land “by a thousand cuts,” in spite of Treaty 8.

Then came the drilling through the Montney shale into the fat from the fossilized monsters. Prophet Chancey Tahey said, “By exhuming the energy from the time of the giant animals, the white people have created a new kind of monster that upsets the very balance of nature.”

Yes, it’s enlightening and humbling to pay attention to mythology. Let’s leave the ancient monsters in the ground!

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John Gellard at the Bear Flat schoolhouse, Boon Ranch, Peace River, 2016

John Gellard spent his childhood in England and Trinidad, donated his adolescence to an English boarding school, earned an MA in Philosophy from the University of Western Ontario, and taught English and Drama in London, Ontario, for seven years. In 1973, he arrived in the West Kootenay where he felled and peeled pine logs on his “wild land” property and built a log cabin. Gravitating to the city, he taught for thirty years at Vancouver Technical Secondary School and Kitsilano Secondary. He still helps run writing workshops for students, notably (since 1993) an annual overnight retreat on Gambier Island. His articles have appeared in the Globe and Mail and Watershed Sentinel. He takes an active interest in environmental issues and travels extensively in B.C. He lives among friends in Kitsilano and on Hornby Island, has three grandchildren, and retired from teaching English and Writing at Kitsilano Secondary School after being named Canada’s “Best High School Teacher” in a Maclean’s poll in August 2005. Editor’s note: John Gellard has recently reviewed books by Claudia Cornwall, Dimitri BayanovJohn ZadaFrank WolfWendy HolmSarah Cox, and Eileen Pearkes for The Ormsby Review.

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Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Wade Davis, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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