Shale-gas rules a work in progress

Jim Prentice says environmental regulations are a work in progress for Canada’s booming shale-gas industry — even though drills have already been piercing the ground in several parts of the country for years.

MONTREAL — Jim Prentice says environmental regulations are a work in progress for Canada’s booming shale-gas industry — even though drills have already been piercing the ground in several parts of the country for years.

The federal environment minister was asked Friday whether Canadian regulators are prepared to protect water resources from ecological risks posed by the burgeoning sector.

“(Environmental issues) have been addressed to some degree in Alberta and in British Columbia and I think we can learn from their process,” Prentice told a news conference in Montreal.

“But shale gas has potential in most of the Canadian provinces and so I think that it’s important that each province ensure that they have the appropriate regulations in place.”

When pressed whether those necessary rules are already governing shale-gas production in Western Canada, Prentice responded: “They are being developed at this time.”

Prentice’s remarks came a day after a University of Toronto report raised concerns Canada has not developed adequate regulations to address the potential impact of shale-gas extraction on the country’s water supply.

“In Canada, government has notably embraced the benefits of shale production while studiously avoiding any serious discussion of its considerable environmental costs,” Ben Parfitt wrote in his report for the university’s Munk School of Global Affairs.

“The silence from the National Energy Board, Environment Canada and provincial energy regulators is troubling.”

On Friday, Prentice called Quebec an example of how to approach shale-gas regulation — even though the province’s fledgling industry is only at an exploratory stage and has no plans to produce commercially before 2014.

Commercial shale-gas production, meanwhile, has already been boring through shale for years in places like B.C.’s Horn River Basin.

“Other provinces will have to ensure that they have the regulations in place, that they’ve examined all of the economic and environmental issues and made the right decisions,” said Prentice, who met with Quebec’s environment minister Friday to discuss several issues, including an upcoming action plan to protect the St. Lawrence River.

“But I think Quebec is very much leading the way in terms of exploring shale gas, and the future of shale gas and how this can be done in an environmentally responsible manner.”

Canada has vast reservoirs of natural gas locked in shale formations across the country.

The gas is extracted from its unconventional source by blasting chemicals, sand and water into deep, underground wells. The process is called hydraulic fracturing — or fracking.

But opponents fear that fracking consumes huge amounts of water, pollutes existing supplies and leaves a contaminated byproduct.

Internal documents produced by Natural Resources Canada in March warned the federal government that shale-gas exploitation could draw heavily on the country’s freshwater reserves.

These are among the concerns that have ignited a passionate public debate over shale gas in Quebec.

The Quebec government has come under fire in recent months for its handling of the provincial shale-gas industry, which has established exploration projects near farming communities along the St. Lawrence River lowlands.

But gas companies say the necessary precautions are being taken to ensure fracking leaves a relatively light environmental footprint.

Questerre Energy Corp. (TSX:QEC), which plans to drill in Quebec’s portion of the Utica shale formation, says 30 to 50 per cent of the water used for fracking can be recycled for future wells.

The Calgary-based company also says the water, which amounts to far less than the province’s pulp and paper industry, is treated and disposed of at approved facilities.

But a shale-gas expert from the Pembina Institute, an environmental think-tank, says governments, like B.C.’s, aren’t doing enough.

“We need to make sure that the industry is being regulated very closely and very carefully, and experience in B.C. has shown that that has not been done over the years,” said Karen Campbell, adding the province has been producing shale gas for about four years.

She said there are a number of abandoned gas wells and contaminated sites in northeastern B.C.

“There’s not enough people on the ground, there’s not enough oversight,” Campbell said.

“We just don’t know what’s happening on the landscape, and, frankly, it’s even more concerning when you don’t know what’s happening to your water supply.”

She said Ottawa has a responsibility to pressure the provinces to do more.

“You can’t do this without an impact — it’s going to have an impact on land, people and it’s going to have a big impact on water.”

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