When the Council of Canadian Academies examined the impact of shale-gas development on the environment, researchers found a disturbing shortage of data on issues of deep concern to British Columbians.
The gas industry, which Premier Christy Clark is selling this week in a trade mission to Asia, is booming in B.C. There are currently 13 liquefied natural gas plants proposed and if they go ahead, up to 6,000 new wells could be drilled to supply them.
But what will the development of all those wells, pipelines and processing plants mean in terms of environmental impact?
We don't know.
And that's disturbing, given the current extent of the industry and the fact that Ms. Clark is going flat-out to push its growth.
The CCA's recent report on shale gas leaves little doubt that both air and water are at risk.
Exactly how great that risk is, however, the researchers weren't able to say.
"The assessment of environmental impacts is hampered by a lack of information about many key issues, particularly the problem of fluids escaping from incompletely sealed wells," states the report, done for the federal government. "If wells can be sealed, the risk to groundwater is expected to be minimal, although little is known about the mobility and fate of hydraulic fracturing chemicals and wastewater in the subsurface."
If wells can be sealed? You'd think the industry would have to be able to assure the public it won't let chemicals leak into the environment before proceeding to drill even one new well, let alone 6,000.
But that assurance hasn't been demanded by the B.C. government, which seems far more interested in drafting a tax regime acceptable to industry than it is in setting regulations that ensure environmental protection.
"A risk to potable groundwater exists from the upward migration of natural gas and saline waters from leaky well casings, and possibly also natural fractures in the rock, old abandoned wells and permeable faults," states the CCA, a non-profit supported by the Royal Society of Canada, the Canadian Academy of Engineering and thse Canadian Academy of Health Sciences. "The risks due to surface activities will likely be minimal if proper precautionary management practices are followed. However, not enough is known about the fate of chemicals in the flow-back water to understand potential impacts to human health, the environment, or to develop appropriate remediation."
Those are issues that Ms. Clark doesn't discuss. When she talks about LNG, she frames it in economic terms. She got elected by promising a booming LNG industry that will provide up to 100,000 new jobs and that will invest $175-billion in B.C. over the next decade. And now she is out to deliver.
But at what cost?
"If shale gas development expands, risks to quality of life and well-being in some communities may become significant due to the combination of diverse factors related to land use, water quality, air quality and loss of rural serenity, among others," states the science report.
The CCA says there "can be advantages in 'go-slow' approaches" because that allows time for data collection. It calls on governments to do baseline environmental studies now, so that changes to water and air quality can be tracked over time.
"Because shale gas development is at an early stage in Canada, there is still opportunity to implement management measures, including environmental surveillance, that will reduce or avoid some of the potential negative environmental impacts and permit adaptive approaches to management," states the CCA.
That would be a cautious approach. In B.C., however, the strategy seems to be a headlong rush into the unknown.