A presentation put off by MUN’s Harris Centre in Corner Brook last week shone an interesting light on the highly contentious debate over hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
It was not fracking itself that took the spotlight as much as the growing suspicion and hostility it generates. The talk — by two geological engineers — elicited an unfriendly response from many audience members.
First to speak was Lesley James, who holds a Chevron-sponsored faculty post in engineering at MUN. She was followed by Maurice Dusseault, a professor and consultant at the University of Waterloo.
Their role was essentially to explain fracking — the mechanics and, in a strict engineering sense, the risks involved. James primarily explained how and why fracking takes place, but emphasized she would not address the broader question of whether it should take place.
Dusseault, on the other hand, ventured a little further outside the scientific comfort zone and strayed into political implications, as well as the misinformation often touted by protesters. That opened him up to challenges from patrons in the question period that followed.
Taken together, Dusseault and James provided some much-needed perspective on the process. Moreover, Dusseault emphasized that while he believes what happens underground is relatively benign, what happens above ground can be serious cause for concern. Post-production risks include the transportation of volatile materials over land and the disposal of toxic water used in the process. He also highlighted the need to maintain and, eventually, shutter above-ground facilities responsibly.
Nonetheless, many in the audience had already flagged the two as industry hacks. In challenging Dusseault, one person misstated the results of a case study, then chided the confused professor for not knowing his facts.
Even afterwards, at least one media commentator accused Dusseault of trying to ignore the connection between all facets of fracking, as if disentangling the various risk factors somehow did listeners a disservice.
It’s easy to see why the oil industry gets a bad rap. From travesties like the Exxon Valdez spill, to the proven conspiracy to fund bogus climate research, the distrust runs long and deep.
But there was nothing to suggest last week’s presenters offered anything more than an honest, informed overview. Frankly, they deserved a little more respect.
There is still plenty of reason to be concerned about fracking. Even if the actual shattering of gas-rich shale proves reasonably harmless, the explosion of wells across the continent should be cause for alarm. It is, after all, yet another fossil fuel, and brings with it most of the same baggage.
The provincial government has put a hold on fracking. That’s a good thing; it wants to thoroughly review the facts before making a decision.
But the decision should be based on facts, not the other way around.
Right now, the fracking debate has become far too fractious.