A Report on the Harris Center’s “Facts about Fracking” by Conor Curtis, January 31, 2014, 4 O’clock Whistle
“Memorial Presents: The Facts About Fracking,” a public forum at the Greenwood Inn organized by the Harris Center in co-operation with the Environmental Policy Institute (EPI) on the 30th of July, was billed as a chance to hear the facts on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) from an engineering perspective. But despite this advertisement, the talk lacked an in-depth, factual account of the history of the technology, and quickly turned into a sales pitch for fracking poorly disguised under an “air” of impartiality. However, even as a sales pitch, the talk came across as poorly planned – as the question and answer session following it revealed. Certainly the two engineers, Dr. Lesley Anne James and Dr. Maurice Dusseault, who spoke at the talk, appear to have failed to anticipate that the audience in attendance was an educated and informed public able to see past pro-fracking rhetoric, their links to industry, and false objectivity.
Selective Omission and Bad Facts
At two points in the question and answer period Dr. Dusseault was asked if he could speak to the use of benzene and other dangerous chemicals in fracking fluid, since he had avoided any comprehensive discussion of the fluid’s contents in his talk. Initially he denied that benzene was used in the fluid, stating “we don’t use benzene in fracturing,” and only after being questioned a second time admitted that benzene would be present when diesel is used in hydraulic fracturing. However, as the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States – an organization Dr. Dusseault quoted during his presentation – has itself admitted, diesel is not the only additive used in fracking which contains benzene; indeed reporting by the New York Times showed “companies have disclosed to the authorities in New York and Pennsylvania that they use other types of petroleum distillates that contain high levels of benzene… According to scientific literature, these additives can contain up to 93 times the amount of benzene contained in diesel.” (The New York Times, February 26, 2011).
This was, unfortunately, not the only lapse of judgement on Dr. Dusseault’s part. His claims that fracking is part of the solution to climate change, and that the process is lowering greenhouse gas emissions by replacing coal, an argument commonly made by the fracking industry, are highly disputed. Upon questioning he was forced to concede that his data did not account for methane emissions, emissions which have led some researchers to suggest fracking may be as bad if not worse than coal (The New York Times, April 11th 2011), and instead disputed the research claiming he knew of several opposing studies, though without specifying who had carried them out.
Additionally, Dr. Dusseault adamantly maintained that there was no evidence of a link between fracking and seismic activity of a potentially harmful scale, but during the Q&A he was forced to admit that he had not bothered to read the most recent literature on the subject – namely the peer-reviewed work of Nicholas van der Elst which shows direct links between severe seismic incidents and fracking, research published in the noted journal Science. In fact, a large amount of recent research has shown evidence contradicting Dr. Dusseault’s assertions about seismic safety of fracking (The Guardian, July 11th 2013).
One has to wonder exactly how a supposedly informed academic like Dusseault was not only ignorant of two year old information on benzene, but not up to date with the most recent research on fracking, especially since he claimed at the talk that “opinions must be informed by facts;” facts which are, according to him, sourced from a largely ambiguous group of “dispassionate people.” In fact, Mr. Dusseault suggested that peer-reviewed literature cannot be trusted at the talk (though he himself has published peer-reviewed articles), to a loud groan from most of the audience’s academic community.
Risk and Responsibility
The irony that Dr. James’ presentation on fracking was – despite her having a salary sponsored by Chevron – at least superficially more impartial than Dr. Dusseault’s, might have conceivably made it more informative – if indeed her presentation had contained any comprehensive history of fracking technology. But rather than tackling the issue at hand, Dr. James simply described how fracking was undertaken in different types of rock, provided some information on why it would be necessary to use hydraulic fracturing on the West Coast, and after a few slides of the equations used – in general – to assess risk before undertaking any oil project, handed the talk over to Dr. Dusseault and went silent. Indeed, it was the opening of Dr. James’ talk that was the most enlightening; she began by asking the audience if they would like to add any risks related to fracking to her pre-compiled list. The audience added not only health concerns and concerns about the flares at fracking sites, but also social concerns; all of which had apparently not entered Dr. James’ calculations. Indeed, Dr. James admitted that, as an engineer, she was not equipped to discuss any of these issues – leading one to wonder how she expects other engineers (apparently not responsible for knowing anything about the larger ramifications of the process) to compute the risk of fracking, and how the Harris Center could claim this talk was on the truth about fracking.
The computation of risk was a key theme to both presentations, but facts were predominantly omitted, and, in the case of Dr. Dusseault, trampled by waves of meaningless rhetoric. Dr. Dusseault directly accused anti-fracking activists of fear mongering, comparing two diagrams of fracking – the first from an anti-fracking website the second from a reliable source – and emphasizing how the former was completely inaccurate. He then displayed an equally misleading picture of a fracking operation situated between two lavish homes in Pennsylvania, and directly implied that anti-fracking activists were millionaires who – angry about the increase of noise near their homes – were campaigning to deprive the ordinary citizen of a source of work. Though he advises the New Brunswick government, clearly Mr. Dusseault has not heard of the anti-fracking activists at Elsipogtog (The 4 O’clock Whistle, October 19th, 2013), who, like anti-fracking activists across the globe, are not millionaires. Indeed, for someone claiming to despise fear mongering, Dr. Dusseault’s presentation, while avoiding any real discussion of the health risks of fracking, none-the-less gave an in depth account of the horrors of economic stagnation that would await any province who did not jump on the fracking train.
While Dr. Dusseault’s presentation (though “performance” might be a better word) was ill-informed, we can perhaps understand Dr. Dusseault’s rhetoric as being precisely that – rhetoric. In one of his past presentations on unconventional oil and gas from May of 2013, as part of the WISE lecture series, not only does he claim that “there is now shale gas exploration going on in the west coast of Newfoundland” (in actuality, exploration, though certainly talked about, was not undertaken), but predicts that the plan to route power from Muskrat Falls through Western Newfoundland will never materialize due to cheaper energy from fracking elsewhere (WISE Waterloo [YouTube], May 2nd 2013).
One could perhaps forgive Dr. Dusseault’s eagerness to make wild predictions in areas – such as economics and health – in which he has no background – but he even went so far as to reject the basic laws of logic; attempting to argue that Canada had the environmental laws and capacity to undertake fracking safely, but also stating that Canada’s regulatory investment for oil and gas was “pathetic,” indeed his talk featured a series of such volte-faces. He claimed that there were only seven monitoring wells for ground water in North Eastern British Columbia, stating “that’s hopeless,” yet had held up BC earlier in his talk as a testament to the virtues of fracking regulation, leaving to wonder why we should be so eager to proceed with a potentially dangerous process if we lack proper national regulatory reform. Further, while Dr. Dusseault claimed that the use of water from ponds for fracking is prohibited in BC, Alberta and New Brunswick, and that as a result “companies don’t [use it],” it is important to point out that a court action has already been filed against both BC’s Oil and Gas Commission and Encana Corp. for allegedly allowing “up to a million litres of fresh water annually to be drained from lakes, streams and rivers” via the “granting of repeated short-term water permits” (CTVNews, November 13th, 2013)
With significant pressure from the oil and gas industry to end the ban on fracking applications in Newfoundland and Labrador, a ban which sets a negative precedent for the technology, there appears no shortage of supposedly impartial organizations willing to promote a positive view of fracking. A 4 O’clock Whistle report recently covered comments made by Elizabeth Beale, CEO of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council, and showed how the council – while claiming to be an impartial think tank – included among its members both EnCana Corp., also currently being taken to court over fracking related charges in Alberta, and SWN Resources, currently conducting Shale Gas Exploration in New Brunswick (The 4 O’clock Whistle, November 23rd, 2013). It may come as no surprise to readers to learn that Ms. Beale – who only three months ago said the citizens of Atlantic Canada and Quebec needed to get the real facts on fracking – also sits on the advisory board of the Harris Center. One of the presenters, Dr. Lesley Anne James is, of course, the Chevron Chair in Petroleum Engineering at Memorial University’s Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science; Chevron having exploratory interests in Canadian shale gas (Chevron website). Further, Memorial University – of whom the Harris Center is a hub for regional development and public policy – is one of more than 95 recipients of the Chevron Corporation’s University Partnership Program (MUN website, June 20th, 2013), and has number of ties to the oil and gas industry (a problematic relationship of academia to industry that organizations such as CAUT are now investigating (CAUT Bulletin, December 2013)).
However, connections to the oil industry aside, “Memorial Presents: The Facts About Fracking” has served to do nothing but utterly embarrass Memorial University and the Harris Center, tarnishing their reputation – and the EPI’s by association. Indeed the Harris Center might have made the talk passable had they kept to their mantra of it being from an engineering perspective exclusively. But their attempt to also bill the event as some sort of basis for the public to make an informed decision on whether or not to allow fracking on the West Coast, not only at the beginning in their introduction of the presenters but in the question sheets handed out to the audience, sealed the fate of the talk’s credibility. It might have been tolerable to listen to the grand messages of Dr. Dusseault had any alternative voice been present, but once again this was not the case, and the entire handling of the talk by the Harris center – it must be said – came across as patronizing at best.
What can be said of the Harris Center’s oath of “integrity, independence, and relevance” so proudly displayed at the event on banners around the Greenwood Inn’s Ballroom? It is, judging by this talk, an oath made in jest – a bad joke. [Emphasis added]
Snowflakes and the avalanche: promoting fracking in Newfoundland, Public lecture offers engineering perspective, makes fracking debate murkier by Jon Parsons, February 1, 2014, The Independent
On Jan. 30, Memorial University’s Harris Centre hosted an event in Corner Brook featuring Dr. Maurice Dusseault, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Waterloo, who shared an engineering perspective on the controversial method of oil and gas extraction that could soon make its way into Newfoundland and Labrador. The public forum provided a good opportunity to examine the sort of rhetoric and skewed logic that is typical of the fracking industry (and hopefully does not foreshadow the parameters of the upcoming provincial internal assessment and review process).
Particularly difficult to understand are a number of statements by Dr. Dusseault (who acknowledged he has previously worked as a consultant for the oil and gas industry), both in his presentation and also in the question and answer session that followed:
“My view of the environmental issues is based upon what we know are the facts about fracking. I’m not speaking about surface spills from fracking trucks … and I’m not speaking about the abandonment of facilities to be eroded and impaired. I’m speaking about fracking. … The risks from deep fracturing are not the real risks. The real risks you should look at are the surface risks.”
What does this mean?
Dr. Dusseault is compartmentalizing and separating out various parts of a process by focusing only on the specific geographic space underground that is fracked. Things like the transportation of fracking fluid, the disposal of wastewater, old abandoned wells, and other such aspects of the process of hydraulic fracturing are simply externalities. This is difficult for thinking people to accept, because bracketing out all the supposed externalities is myopic, or—in plain language—ridiculous. To illustrate the point, take this quote from Dr. Dusseault referring to an image of a fracking protester used in his presentation:
“Fracking does not kill. And juxtaposing this person with the police here, who were called in to stop illegal activity, unfortunately, makes it look like it’s a fascist state suppressing free thought. Well, that’s not true. This person is expressing her opinion. Unfortunately it is misinformed. Fracking does not kill.”
We understand from the earlier quote that Dr. Dusseault is not talking about surface spills. He is not talking about water poisoned by leaking holding ponds. He is not talking about the worker killed in an explosion at a fracking site in West Virginia and he is not talking about the 47 people killed in Lac Megantic, Quebec, when a train full of hydraulic fractured Bakken oil derailed and exploded. These are externalities, or “surface risks,” as he calls them. These are industrial accidents, mishaps, or human errors, but have nothing to do with the actual underground geographic spaces that are fracked. And so, according to this logic, Dr. Dusseault can sincerely make the claim that fracking does not kill. One can similarly make the claim that cigarettes do not kill people; lung cancer kills people. High-fat diets do not kill people; cholesterol and clogged arteries kill people. Falling on a sword does not kill people; rather, the breakdown of the cohesive bonds of cellular membranes kills people.
After stating the risks of fracking (taken here to mean only the underground geographic space) are minimal, Dr. Dusseault goes on to say that governmental regulations of fracking are woefully inadequate and that there are not enough regulators to properly monitor the industry: “The regulatory investment in Canada is pathetic … we need more regulators and we need them in the field”. [And regulators everywhere, while boasting of the best, deregulate to enable hydraulic fracturing and its related pollutions without hindrance]
So, without regulators to observe the industry, how can he make any sort of claims about risks? Where is that data coming from? Does the fracking industry report of its own volition irregularities and mishaps? [And the industry, via its associations and lobby groups, eg CAPP, creates its own voluntary “Best Practices” to cover up the deregulation, ensuring that violations and mishaps are not punishable by law] Are these issues just more externalities?
Mulling over these philosophical conundrums, a quote from Stanislaw Lec comes to mind: “No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.” Fracking, as Dr. Dusseault understands it, is a single snowflake. The transport trucks are another. The tailings ponds are another. Abandoned wells are another.
Certainly it is possible to compartmentalize all these things, and perhaps there is even a consistent logic to this view. But when you look at a mountain of snow you don’t see single snowflakes, and when you’re buried in an avalanche sophistry is little comfort.
[Refer also to:
Alberta to consider [but still isn’t] testing water near deep fracking sites, Energy companies are not required to test water quality even though the ERCB knew a decade ago that hydraulic fracturing in Alberta was causing serious damages
Talisman deep fracing waste pit in NE BC leaked for months, kept from public; Are Talisman, the energy regulator and BC government lying when they claim groundwater never contaminated by fracking in BC?