Sustainability Journal

December 2012 Issue (files are in PDF format)

Why fracking is a threat

There has been a rush to apply hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to shale rock to release natural gas. The same process is being used to recover oil as well since the US potential for fossil fuels supply is primarily made up of the oil and gas in the US shale rock. Moreover, the technology is also being used to recover "tight oil" that is bound to other types of rock, which makes it largely inaccessible when using conventional oil well technology. There has been a considerable amount of publicity concerning the geological instability that results from the fracking process and the potential for contaminating ground water with both the natural gas and the various (and often secret) chemicals that are used in the fracking process. However, there is a much more serious threat that receives very little attention and that appears to have been subject to concerted efforts to hush it up.

When you fracture the rock to release the gas there is no way to contain all of it. You cannot somehow spread an impervious membrane around the horizontal layers of rock that contain the oil and gas. Some of the gas is obviously recovered but a substantial part of the balance will eventually find its way to the surface and will be released to the atmosphere. How much depends on factors that vary with every borehole and the technology is too new to provide the data that is needed to produce reliable average figures. Natural gas is a very potent greenhouse gas that has over 70 times as much heat trapping ability as carbon dioxide. When natural gas is burned it produces only about half as much CO2 as burning coal and that fact has been widely heralded but usually there is no mention of the fact that the lower CO2 is offset by the methane emissions. Some estimates suggest that natural gas from fracking will be worse than coal as a dirty GHG source. Others claim it will not be that bad, but it remains highly likely that the emissions from shale gas recovery will be much worse than those from conventional natural gas sources. The principal papers that discuss the issues are:

PRO - We should use shale gas

CON - We should not use shale gas

Ontario has switched from using coal to natural gas for its peaking power plants. That has temporarily reduced the GHG emissions but as the supply of natural gas itself switches over to shale gas (over the coming decade) that temporary advantage will disappear. However, Ontario uses natural gas primarily for home heating, not for power generation, so the use of shale gas will dramatically increase the GHG emissions in Ontario. Those emissions occur at the sites of the wells and not in Ontario, but GHG is a world-wide problem so the point of emissions is irrelevant. The upshot is that we need to stop using natural gas for all applications in Ontario, and that is entirely feasible if we switch to using natural sources of heat.

Ministry of the Environment Progress Report on Climate change

Appendix to the MOE report

The Ministry of the Environment has published a report that outlines the progress that is being made in achieving reductions in GHG emissions. The government's target is to reduce the emissions to 35 Mt (eq.) CO2 by 2050. A projection of the trends in the MOE report indicates that the emissions are likely to reach at least 220 Mt by that time, even if you completely ignore the shale gas contribution discussed above. That represents a large increase in emissions compared to the 1990 level as compared to the objective of reducing the emissions to 20% of the 1990 value.

Clearly the measures that are being taken by the government are grossly inadequate. Extending those measures is not an option - Ontario is already spending many tens of billions of dollars on its energy program and that program is also ramping up the cost of electricity, putting the province's economy at risk. We need to adopt a completely different approach. A link to a report that suggests such an alternative is listed below, together with a review of the MOE report by the Ontario Environmental Commissioner.

Critique of the MOE Progress Report

Review by the Ontario Environmental Commissioner

In response to a personal enquiry that I made to the Commissioner the following email was received from the Commissioner's office. It suggests that an application should be made to the Energy Ministry for a review of the potential for using heat storage on a large scale. If anyone is interested in participating in the preparation of such an application they can email me at

Email from the Office of the Commissioner

Response from the Ministry of the Environment

A copy of the Critique was sent to the Minister of the Environment together with an offer to publish their response (attached in the PDF file linked to the above title). The response came from Adam Redish, Director of the Air Policy and Climate Change Branch. However, the response made no mention whatsoever of the topic that had been raised (the potential for using thermal storage for buildings) or about the omission of the GHG contribution from natural gas that escapes during fracking. The report states that "significant progress is being made", which is the opposite of the conclusion drawn in the Critique, which is primarily based on the MOE's own data.