JIM EMBERGER COMMENTARY
The Miramichi Leader, 19 February 2016
The Commission on Hydrofracking will soon submit its report and the government will make its decision on the future of shale gas. After five years of examining the pros and cons, what evidence has accumulated to support each side?
If a solid economic case for shale gas ever did exist, it has now evaporated. It is now common knowledge that to offset the rapid depletion of shale gas wells, producers continuously drilled more of them.
The resulting oversupply dropped prices to historic lows. Low prices forced companies to borrow heavily to continue drilling. But prices remained low, creating a classic investment bubble. Predictably, that bubble is now bursting. Dozens of companies have laid off thousands of workers and face bankruptcy.
SWN, the largest gas leaseholder in New Brunswick, was not operating a single drilling rig at the start of 2016, and nearly half of its employees were laid off. Its share price is in single digits.
Potash Corporation – one of our largest users of gas – left the province. Shares of Corridor Resources, which provided gas for Potash, are valued at thirty-nine cents.
The record growth and low prices of renewable energy, plus reduced gas demand due to a weak world economy, have cast serious doubts on the viability of exporting LNG – a major part of the shale gas business case – and many projects have been cancelled or postponed.
Price-competitive renewable energy takes a bigger market share every year. In the home of the shale revolution, the majority of U.S.A. “new” electricity comes from renewables. With the world taking climate change seriously, investment in fossil fuels is decreasing.
These trends show no sign of changing in the near future, leading Howard Rogers, director of gas research at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, to tell The Financial Times, “There could not be a worse time to be embarking on challenging gas projects.”
The Paris climate change conference concluded that, to escape climate disaster, most of the world’s fossil fuel reserves cannot be burned. Unproven resources and new fossil fuel infrastructure should not be developed.
Methane (natural gas) is 86 times as potent as CO2 as a greenhouse gas over 20-years. Studies now find that methane leaks, at all stages of gas production and distribution, are much greater than previously thought.
Methane leaking from failed cement seals remains the industry’s Achilles’ heel. Despite decades of effort to solve the problem, leaks continue at the same rates. Recently, in California, a cement seal failure at a storage facility well leaked methane for four months, equaling the annual greenhouse gas emissions of half a million automobiles, and forcing the evacuation of thousands of people.
In 2014, the Canadian Council of Academies reported a total lack of scientific groundwater monitoring at shale gas sites, indicating that there was no scientific basis for shale gas regulations. Recently, hydrogeological contamination specialist Dr. John Cherry, chairperson of that report, reiterated that “there is still no monitoring,”adding that New Brunswick shouldn’t proceed with shale gas until that situation changes.
The U.S. EPA’s draft report found cases of water contamination at every site and every category it covered, and said many more are likely hidden behind court settlement “gag orders.”
The EPA’s Science Advisory Board’s draft review of the report found that this evidence did not support the conclusion that no “widespread systemic contamination” was found. It called for the removal of that phrase from the report. The Board also criticized the omission of high profile EPA investigations that found contamination, and the failure to discuss the serious consequences of contamination where it did occur.
The EPA noted that the health effects of 92 per cent of chemicals used in fracking remain unstudied and untested, even as public health studies associate a growing number of serious illnesses with the industry.
Earthquakes associated with the industry have increased exponentially in number and strength, and are linked to both fracking and wastewater injection wells, indicating that wastewater disposal also remains a problem.
One can find little objective evidence that any of the much-discussed problems of shale gas have been resolved. Meanwhile, its alleged economic benefits have obviously fallen victim to reality.
After enjoying a boom that lasted less than a decade, communities and governments that hosted shale gas now struggle with the bust: cuts to budgets and services, increased deficits, an aftermath of severe social problems including unemployment, and the expenses associated with vast numbers of abandoned wells.
Fortunately, New Brunswick did not tie its destiny to this get-rich-quick industry, or we would have an even larger hole to dig ourselves out of.
These are the real economic, scientific and climate change contexts in which the government must make its decision.
JIM EMBERGER lives in Taymouth and is a spokesperson for the New Brunswick Anti-Shale Gas Alliance