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Green war brewing over 'fracking' for gas

An Encana drilling rig in Fort Nelson.

David Ebner/The Globe and Mail/David Ebner/The Globe and Mail

British Columbia's next "war in the woods" could be fought over gas deposits buried far below the thinly populated ranchlands of the Peace River region.

The province's two Independent MLAs are urging the B.C. government to investigate fracking – a technique for extracting unconventional gas deposits. Launching a probe now, they argue, could head off an environmental campaign that may put B.C. in an unflattering international spotlight, as the harvesting of old-growth forests did almost 20 years ago.

Energy Minister Rich Coleman said Tuesday he is seeing environmentalists ramp up their opposition to the shale-gas developments in B.C.'s northeast, after successful campaigns that led to a moratorium in Quebec and a public inquiry by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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"They have chosen this as the next hill they want to go to, as far as having an argument over this," Mr. Coleman said. But he insisted there is no reason for B.C. to pull back on the development of an increasingly important economic resource.

Groups including the Sierra Club of B.C., Georgia Strait Alliance, Dogwood Initiative, Council of Canadians, Wilderness Committee and B.C. Tap Water Alliance are calling for a public inquiry.

In a letter to Premier Christy Clark that will be delivered Wednesday, Independent MLAs Bob Simpson and Vicki Huntington call for a special legislative committee to lead an inquiry into fracking.

"I'm concerned this is going to be our next war in the woods," Mr. Simpson said, referring to the high-profile environmental battles in the 1990s that used international markets to press B.C. to improve its logging practices. "I think the timing is right to take a good look at this now, in advance of any major public backlash."

Terry Webster is one of the long-time ranchers raising concerns about fracking in her community. Ms. Webster's 400-hectare ranch near Hudson's Hope is already crossed by two natural-gas pipelines. But it's the push for a third line, to divert water from the Williston Lake reservoir to a fracking development to the north of her property, that angers her.

Ms. Webster's buffalo herd was reduced to just 50 animals last year because of water shortages.

"It's a drought year here and they are putting fresh-water lines across our property and we can't use it," she said. "I would really question using fresh water for this." She's also worried about how the contaminated water will be disposed of. "B.C. seems to be saying, 'Let's develop it and see if there are problems.' "

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Mr. Coleman agreed with Ms. Webster that there should be some baseline studies to ensure that well water is not affected by fracking.

The Ministry of Health is still developing terms of reference for a study into the impacts of the oil and gas industry in the province.

But Mr. Coleman said there is less chance of a clash over fracking here compared to other jurisdictions, because B.C.'s shale-gas developments are in largely undeveloped regions. "We've been doing it for about 10 years, so we worked through a lot of the environmental issues that these other guys are having difficulties with today," he added.

Susan Howatt, managing director of the Sierra Club of B.C., said British Columbians should be worried even if they aren't watching the development up close, because the government is "handing out licences like candy" for shale-gas development without ensuring safety for the province's fresh-water supply.

"We need to have an honest conversation in B.C. about our water," she said. "Do we choose the short-term economic windfall that may come with this new gas potential, or do we look at other jurisdictions like New York and Quebec that are pausing to make sure they understand what we are risking here?"

Ms. Huntington said the government is driving the expansion of fracking through incentives to the industry – the province expects to hand out $172-million this year to the gas sector in royalty programs and infrastructure credits. It's not clear how much went to assist fracking projects, but half of the province's natural-gas production is now derived from those unconventional gas plays.

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Facts on fracking

How it's done and how much B.C. earns

A guide to fracking

What it is

A process of injecting fluid – water, sand and chemicals – at high pressure to fracture shale as deep as 2,000 metres below the surface to release trapped natural-gas deposits. A hard substance, such as silica sand, holds the cracks open after the pressure is lowered, allowing natural gas to migrate to the wellbore.

Where it is

In British Columbia, shale gas is being developed in the northeast corner of the province. The best-known developments are the Horn River basin around Fort Nelson and the Montney play around Dawson Creek.

What it's worth

Almost half of the natural gas production in B.C. is extracted through fracking – about 40 million cubic metres out of a total of almost 88 million cubic metres of natural gas production. The finance ministry does not break down its gas revenues between conventional and non-conventional gas. In the current fiscal year, the province expects to take $365-million in net royalties from natural gas.

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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