Banned in France, suspended by moratoriums in Quebec and New South Wales, Australia, protested and under review in other jurisdictions, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has tapped into significant controversy.
Fracking allows natural gas trapped in bubbles within shale rock formations to be released and captured. Given the decrease in associated costs, the practice has become more attractive. As a result, industry and environmentalists have squared off over the issue leaving governments throughout Canada and around the world to determine the environmental and economic impacts of the practice.
The Council of Canadian Academies, is a not for profit organization that provides independent, expert assessments of the science that is relevant to matters of significant public interest. In late 2011 the Council was asked by the federal government to conduct an assessment regarding shale gas extraction. The Council is in the process of convening an expert panel to assess the specific question:
“What is the state of knowledge of potential environmental impacts from the exploration, extraction, and development of Canada’s shale gas resources, and what is the state of knowledge of associated mitigation options?”
This assessment is not the Council’s first foray into the arena of gas exploration. In 2006, Natural Resources Canada tasked the Council to investigate the extraction of gas hydrates. Gas hydrates are formed when natural gas and water combine at low temperature but under high pressure, turning the natural gas into a “frozen state.”
The panel published its report, Energy From Gas Hydrates: Assessing the Opportunities & Challenges for Canada, in 2008, which concluded that while there are no technical problems in extracting gas hydrates that are insurmountable the process is more costly than conventional methods of accessing natural gas.
“Complex issues would need to be addressed if gas hydrate were to become a part of our energy future,” explained the Chair of the Panel, Dr. John Grace, Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering and Canada Research Chair in Clean Energy Processes at the University of British Columbia. “The panel has focused on identifying and assessing the science and technology needs for the production of natural gas from gas hydrates in Canada, and analyzing the potential jurisdictional, community impact, safety and environmental issues.”
One of the complexities, the panel discerned, revolves around carbon dioxide volumes. Although CO2 would be released during the extraction refinery processes, less CO2 per unit would result when gas hydrates are used as fuel compared to oil and coal.
“Natural Resources Canada is using the [gas hydrates] assessment as a cornerstone of the Canadian Hydrates Strategy. It has helped us validate and focus our activities in program definition by the energy and earth science sectors,” said Cassie Doyle, (former) Deputy Minister, Natural Resources Canada.
For further information on the Council’s current work examining shale gas extraction, or on the Energy From Gas Hydrates: Assessing the Opportunities & Challenges for Canada please visit www.scienceadvice.ca.