By Amy Lubik, Ben Parfitt and Grand Chief Stewart Phillip
Just two days before B.C. Energy Minister Michelle Mungall announced a completely inadequate “independent scientific review” of fracking in our province, an international team of scientists issued a stark warning about the human health risks associated with the natural gas industry’s rampant use of this brute force technology.
“Our examination…uncovered no evidence that fracking can be practiced in a manner that does not threaten human health,” concluded the scientists, who were affiliated either with the Concerned Health Professionals of New York or the Nobel Peace Prize-winning group, Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Tellingly, the scientific review just announced by the B.C. government will expressly not investigate the human health impacts of fracking.
Fracking involves pressure-pumping immense quantities of water, sand and chemicals underground with such force that earthquakes are frequently triggered. Northeast B.C. has the dubious distinction of being home to some of the most powerful fracking operations on earth, and much of the resulting damage occurs on Indigenous territories.
The evidence reviewed by the scientists included nearly 1,300 peer-reviewed articles. That fact alone tells you something. The “science” on fracking is already in.
And here’s just a smattering of what it says:
People living near gas drilling and fracking operations are more prone to asthma. Pregnant women living near drilled and fracked gas wells face elevated risks of giving birth to newborns with congenital heart defects. Workers servicing gas well sites are exposed to high levels of silica, diesel exhaust, and volatile organic compounds that raise concerns about higher incidence of occupational lung diseases, including silicosis, asthma, and lung cancer.
For Indigenous people living in fracking zones, the impacts of fossil fuel industry operations only add to the disproportionately poor health statistics they already face.
A preliminary scientific study published this January by health scientists at the University of Montreal, for example, found that pregnant women in northeast B.C. have elevated levels of benzene metabolites (benzene is a carcinogen) in their blood. The 15 pregnant Indigenous women in the study had levels six times higher than the Canadian average.
For these reasons and others, the organizations we represent and 14 others last fall called for a full public inquiry into all aspects of fracking operations in our province. We made that call because of abundant evidence that fracking in northeast B.C. was intensifying and that B.C.’s energy industry regulator, the Oil and Gas Commission, was failing to provide reasonable checks on fossil fuel industry excesses.
In issuing our collective call we said then — and we restate now — that a scientific “review” will not deliver meaningful changes. The people who live in the northeast, who drink the region’s water, who breathe its air, deserve nothing less than a full public inquiry into all aspects of fossil fuel industry operations.
It must also fully addresses the question of free, prior and informed consent, a cornerstone of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Michelle Mungall and all her Cabinet colleagues are tasked by Premier John Horgan to implement.
Now, sadly, we have even more reason to oppose a “scientific review.” Here’s why.
The review will be extremely narrowly focussed. Minister Mungall has tasked three scientists to look at water usage in fracking operations, examine earthquakes triggered by such operations and determine what methane may be vented into the atmosphere during fracking operations themselves. The panel is to make “recommendations” on how to “minimize” environmental risks.
Troublingly, at least one senior member of Mungall’s ministry (an assistant deputy minister) communicated with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) well before the panel was struck. Consequently, the association, which represents the very companies that are fracking in the province, received generous forewarning that the review would not look at the human health impacts associated with fracking or at the fossil fuel industry’s ballooning greenhouse gas emissions.
(A recent study in Alberta found emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, were 15 times greater than what fossil fuel companies operating in the Red Deer area were reporting to the provincial government).
Not only was CAPP forewarned about the limited B.C. fracking review, but it was encouraged well in advance of anyone else to get going on lining up its “expert” witnesses.
The public interest is clearly not being served here. Instead, the interests of an industry with a vested stake in maintaining the status quo are.
In just two years, Encana, one of the major companies drilling and fracking for natural gas in northeast B.C., says it will double its natural gas production and quintuple its gas liquids output, much of which will be destined for Alberta’s tarsands. That translates directly into increased health risks for the region’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents.
British Columbians deserve better. What’s needed are comprehensive changes to public policy. A full public inquiry could provide a needed roadmap. The government’s science panel most certainly will not.
Amy Lubik is a health researcher with the B.C. Chapter of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. Ben Parfitt is a resource policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip is president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.