Earthquake shakes up debate on fracking in B.C.

Last week a 4.6 magnitude earthquake struck near Fort St. John in northeastern B.C., just a few kilometres from a fracking site operated by Progress Energy. The company was forced to halt operations temporarily while investigators determined the cause of the quake.

Fracking is a shorthand description for hydraulic fracturing, a process where high pressure water is injected deep underground to break-up shale and other rock formations in order to free up gas and oil deposits.

Studies have found links to this industrial technique and earthquakes in other jurisdictions. A recent report by the U.S. Geological Survey confirmed that fracking was linked to earthquakes in at least eight states. Oklahoma, for example, which used to average only a handful of earthquakes greater than magnitude 3.0 per year, saw the number of tremors it suffered increase exponentially following the introduction of fracking over the past decade. In 2011, the state was hit with 60 significant quakes.

Photo courtesy of CREDO: Cuomo Policy Summit

Photo courtesy of CREDO: Cuomo Policy Summit

Hopefully this latest tremor in B.C. shakes up the political debate in the province. Despite the rapid expansion of this extreme form of fossil fuel extraction, public and media debate has been anemic.

This summer’s short legislative session did see a fierce debate over the related plans to massively increase exports of liquified natural gas from B.C., with the NDP and Greens voting against Christy Clark and the B.C. Liberals’ deal with Malaysian-based Petronas for an LNG facility on the northwest coast. The opposition to the deal, however, focused primarily on the lower royalty rates Clark agreed to, and on how many local jobs would actually be created.

It should be noted, of course, that not all LNG exports will be produced from fracked gas; some will come from more conventional gas wells in northern B.C. But the scale of LNG exports projected by the B.C. Liberals will inevitably mean a sharp increase in fracking. At a bare minimum, a moratorium on new projects is needed while the impacts are studied. B.C. needs to stop burying its head in the sand on this, especially since so many other places in the world have banned fracking altogether.

As if the possibility that the fossil fuel industry was creating an epidemic of earthquakes wasn’t enough, there were clear reminders this summer that climate change also needed to be part of the discussion when it comes to fracking and LNG.

Andrew Weaver, Green MLA | Photo courtesy of Andrew Weaver

Andrew Weaver, Green MLA | Photo courtesy of Andrew Weaver

Green MLA Andrew Weaver tried to get the legislature to hold an emergency session on the topic, “in light of this year’s record temperatures, drought, lack of snowpack and forest fires, and with a 90 per cent probability that El Niño will persist into the winter, exacerbating present conditions, whether we as legislators are acting with sufficient urgency and demonstrating the appropriate leadership on preparing for and mitigating the escalating impacts of climate change on our province.”

Weaver’s motion was shot down, although both the Liberals and NDP did agree to convene a discussion on the topic later this year when the legislature resumes work in Victoria. With arguably the most important climate summit in world history being hosted by the United Nations in Paris this December, B.C. urgently needs to be part of debating this worldwide crisis.

As with the federal election, it often feels like here in B.C. our political debates basically ignore the existential threat facing the planet. After a summer of wildfires and now a significant fracking-related earthquake, it’s time to take climate issues seriously.

The fate of our livable planet is not just one discrete issue amongst many; it is the basic foundation that makes everything else possible. It shouldn’t take an earthquake to remind us.