I warn you that this will be a bit of a ramble – even more so than usual! I am co-founder of an environmental advocacy group, the Common Sense Canadian (named after Thomas Paine’s revolutionary essay of 1775) and we maintain a popular website (www.thecanadian.org) and generally speaking we try to protect one of the world’s last wilderness areas (British Columbia) from the senseless predations of greedy, mostly foreign, corporations, aided and abetted by both the federal and provincial governments.
About a year ago I thought I’d seen all there to see in this field when a lady wrote me and asked me why I wasn’t onto «fracking»? Hating to admit my ignorance – after all, I had once been Environment Minister in the BC government – but found myself replying «what the hell is fracking?»
It turns out I wasn’t the only one asking that question. I learned that it was a way to capture oil and gas unobtainable by ordinary means that is caught between layers of shale, often as deep as a mile.
The technique is to drill where the gas is trapped and by means of chemical laced water drive the oil or gas (mostly gas at this point) to the surface. In less than a year «fracking» has turned the energy field around such that the US, long dependent on the Middle East and Canada for its supplies gas, is on the brink, perhaps as early as 2016, of self sufficiency and its impact on the Middle East, Russia and Asia, will be enormous given that gas prices will plummet – as they already have in North America…
Before we get to the political part, let’s look at a couple of other issues. What ever happened to the notion of moving away from fossil fuels? In the last US election, not only did the president talk about more pipelines for the transfer of Bitumen (a highly viscous oil sand) but Mr Romney, accompanied by millions of dollars in industry breast beating, talked about increasing production of coal!
It’s interesting to note that whereas scant months ago we labeled all fossil fuels as bad for the environment, we now seem to be involved in a comparative exercise where we say «gas is less intrusive than oil» and so on. It’s rather like saying «I’d prefer to die of a heart attack than cancer.
In British Columbia the government declared a couple of years ago that it was no longer permissible to use natural gas to produce energy – carbon in the atmosphere and all that – yet a couple of months ago declared that this didn’t count if the gas was used to make liquified natural gas (LNG), a compression of natural gas easier to transmit.
The environmental problems from «fracking» are many and serious. There is a reasonable fear that earthquakes may result, a concern backed up by relatively minor tremors that have already occurred. The system uses huge quantities of water. Where is that to come from? Will this materially affect the rivers or lakes used. Will it, like BC, use water destined for hydro-electric power?
Where does this water, laced with highly toxic chemicals, go after it’s use? Into the water table? Will we see, as we have in the Alberta tar sands, water in the toilet or in the drinking water catch fire?
Will we see a poisoning of rivers and streams, as has happened to Lake Athabaska in the tar sands area, so that eating fish, a native Indian staple, highly carcinogenic? The incidence of cancer amongst Athabaska natives is alarming. And there is the issue of pipelines which will have a deleterious impact upon our wilderness and the fauna and flora it supports.
On the political side, we must first acknowledge the fact that the quantity of natural gas is rapidly increasing. We may not lake Adam Smith and his «hidden hand» economics but no one can now argue, no matter his political affiliations, that the higher the supply available, the lower the price.
Let me start at home. British Columbia is a big time player on the gas scene and the government relies upon royalties and taxes for a huge part of its income. Now the American market has all but evaporated and prospective customers are finding their gas closer to home.
This means that we look to LNG sales, mainly to China, to keep our gas revenues up. And if you had just arrived from Mars, it might indeed look good because China has no significant gas production. And China is investing in BC LNG and encouraging us to build more.
The reality is that, at the latest count. China, the third largest country in the world, is spending more than $2 billion on prospecting for its own shale gas which they will surely find. When that happens they will abandon their former business clients abroad.
At this point, then, China is investing on BC as an insurance against their own gas taking longer to find and develop. When they do. LNG deals will collapse with China accepting their investment in BC as an insurance premium.
I won’t go into the probable impact «fracking» on Russia and the huge Gazprom export to Europe but concentrate on the impact of the US being self sufficient.
When you think about it, most of the troubles and most of the benefits in the Middle East have come from oil. Because the US (and to a lesser degree other foreign countries) have badly needed Mid-East oil, many appalling governments have been created or supported by outsiders, mostly American. I have said on these pages the problem with the Middle East is that when you topple one evil dictator his successor is likely to be as bad if not worse. This is what we’re seeing now and will, in the not too distant future, see in Saudi Arabia.
What is it that sustains tyrannical governments? The market for their oil with America a huge customer. We have, then, come to this sorry pass. Fossil fuels are alive and well and world and will not be stopped by well meaning politicians or marching protests.
«Fracking» has received almost no critical investigation and we’re relying upon the rubbish put forward by PR hacks employed by the companies and the need of governments for campaign funds from by these very corporations.
There has been no political analysis of the problems caused the huge new supply of energy. Part of that is because two major powers, Russia and China are much more concerned with the domestic problems posed. I suppose that the real cause of these discomforts is that it all happened so damned fast.