B.C.’s scientific inquiry into fracking won’t address risks to public health, the government quietly assured the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) nearly six weeks before government publicly announced the inquiry on Thursday.
B.C. also assured CAPP the inquiry would not address industry’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, according to documents obtained by DeSmog Canada.
“You have the preeminent industry association in the country given six weeks advance notice not only about the inquiry itself but a clear indication that key things are simply not going to be addressed,” Ben Parfitt, an investigative journalist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, told DeSmog Canada.
”I’m deeply troubled by that.”
In November the CCPA, along with 16 partner organizations, called on the B.C. government to launch a broad-reaching public inquiry into all aspects of the fracking industry, after Parfitt revealed several companies had built unlicensed dams to hold water for frack operations.
The groups renewed that call in December after a leaked report showed the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission had kept information about potentially hundreds of leaking oil and gas wells hidden for four years.
“I am extremely worried and all the groups that signed on to a call for an inquiry are extremely concerned about what we see here,” Parfitt said.
Nearly six weeks before B.C. announced its review of the fracking process, CAPP was notified the inquiry would focus only on water usage and induced earthquakes from fracking operations.
Government also made CAPP aware the province would not conduct a full public inquiry as had been requested by civil society groups, that the panel would consist of three academics and would conduct its work in April and May.
None of the 17 organizations that made the call for a public inquiry into fracking were notified of government’s intentions to launch a scientific panel.
The B.C. Ministry of Mines and Petroleum Resources did not answer questions about the nature of its consultation with CAPP or whether the industry association made specific recommendations regarding the province’s scientific inquiry. CAPP did not respond to a request for comment.
Significant harms to human health associated with fracking
The announcement of B.C.’s scientific inquiry this week coincides with the release in the U.S. of the most authoritative study of fracking’s threats to human health ever published.
The compendium, a 266-page report which draws from nearly 1,300 peer-reviewed studies, reports and investigations, was released by the Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Concerned Health Professionals of New York.
The report found “no evidence that fracking can be practiced in a manner that does not threaten human health” and puts B.C.’s avoidance of health impacts in its scientific inquiry conspicuously on display according to Barbara Gottlieb, director for environment and health at Physicians for Social Responsibility and one of the co-authors of the study.
“I’m so glad to hear there is going to be a government scientific review of fracking,” Gottlieb told DeSmog Canada. “I’m struck there are no health voices on the panel.”
The body of information addressing the threats fracking poses to human health is enormous, Gottlieb said, adding the bulk of the research has been conducted in the last five years.
“The most important thing to note is that we can say with certainty fracking causes harm to human health.”
Recent research has demonstrated a real statistical correlation between those living close to fracking sites and an increase in hospitalization for numerous causes, including increased asthma, harm to fetuses and premature birth which is the leading cause of premature death in infants in the U.S., Gottlieb and her co-authors found.
“For a long time the information was largely anecdotal, largely at the level of symptoms, so we’d see people living near fracking sites had headaches or sudden and severe nosebleeds.”
The research now shows a strong connection between serious harm and proximity to fracking operations, Gottlieb said, noting the occupational risk to those working for the oil and gas industry.
“The extraction sites are dangerous,” she said.
Amy Lubik, member of the Public Health Association of B.C., one of the groups that called on government to launch a public inquiry into fracking, said much of the research into the impacts of fracking on human health has been done in the U.S.
“There aren’t a lot of studies in B.C. around the impacts on health,” Lubik told DeSmog Canada. “It’s one of the reasons why we were hoping the government was going to examine fracking in a public inquiry.”
Lubik, who is an environmental health scientist with the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, said many other jurisdictions that have placed a ban or moratorium on fracking have done so precisely because of risks to health.
“I think we need to do a hell of a lot more research,” she said. “We talk about the chemical issue a lot with the different groups in public health. What about the people that are living and working in these industries?”
Lubik added when it comes to public health, emissions associated with the industry are also of significant concern.
“Climate change is the biggest public health risk of our time. If we aren’t meeting our Paris targets, we will put a lot of people’s health at risk.”
Emissions impact of fracking overlooked
Scientist John Werring with the David Suzuki Foundation, also a signatory of the call for a broad public inquiry into fracking, has spent the last several years measuring the impacts of leaking methane from oil and gas infrastructure in B.C.
Werring’s research found fugitive methane — an extremely potent greenhouse gas — is escaping at much higher rates than previously estimated by government or industry. A report published in collaboration between the David Suzuki Foundation and St. Xavier University recommended B.C. require industry to provide regular monitoring and reporting of fugitive emissions.
Werring said he’s disappointed B.C.’s scientific review of fracking was designed to exclude looking at those fugitive emissions.
“I think unfortunately that this is a very, very, very narrowly focused scientific review,” Werring told DeSmog Canada.
While there are environmental hazards associated with the fracking process itself, Werring said much of the impacts of fracking happen above ground.
“When we’re talking, for example, about the issue of fugitive emissions, they contain potentially toxic components that have adverse impacts on human health. These are things like benzene, toluene and hydrogen sulfide gas.”
“There is nothing here in government’s scientific review that they are going to look at the human health impacts. Nothing,” Werring said.
Gottlieb said tracking methane is important for tracking the larger movement of contaminants away from fracking sites and into communities. She added there is no known safe threshold for exposure to benzene, which causes cancer.
“The fracking site is where the gas is extracted but then the methane is carried to processing stations and then carried often hundreds of miles to power stations or increasingly in the U.S. there is a push to liquify natural gas,” she said.
Those pipelines carry with them some of the dangerous substances that come out of the ground with the methane, including particulate matter, volatile organic compounds and often radioactive material, Gottlieb said.
“These dangerous substance are not only causing sickness and hospitalization and so on where this is extracted but this whole pipeline and infrastructure system carries this toxic material with them and into communities hundreds of miles away.”
“We’re all stakeholders in regards to fracking.”
Stronger review needed
Gottlieb said in her home state of Maryland, where there is a current ban on fracking, Physicians for Social Responsibility pushed for health voices to be included in reviews of the industry’s impacts there.*
She said B.C. may be well counselled to embed a health professional in their review.
Lubik said there is still time for B.C. to alter the scope of its inquiry.
“I think there’s definitely still an opportunity — they haven’t even started yet.”
Parfitt said beyond assessing the health and emission impacts of the fracking industry in B.C., a meaningful inquiry would address the efficacy of the regulatory environment in the province.
“This review isn’t going to come anywhere remotely close to what our organization and other organizations felt was critical to be addressed by a much broader, fulsome public inquiry,” Parfitt said.
There have been too many examples of the regulator failing to protect the public’s interest, Parfitt said.
“We believe very strongly they’re not going to wrestle this beast to the ground if they’re not willing to look at how this industry is regulated.”
*Update: Wednesday March 21, 2018 6:45 p.m. PST. This article has been updated to reflect the fact that the state of Maryland has a ban on fracking and not a moratorium as previously stated.*