Fracking Suspended in Quebec Following Release of Government Report

The Canadian province of Quebec has decided to suspend new natural gas drilling that involves hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, until its environmental impacts are better understood. Environment Minister Pierre Arcand’s announcement of the Quebec fracking halt followed yesterday’s release of a government report that recommended the action.

According to the Montreal Gazette, the action means fracking in Quebec will be severely curtailed for the next year, perhaps longer. The government is planning an in-depth strategic environmental assessment of fracking, which could take as long as two years.

“The conclusion of the report is clear: the lack of knowledge (about shale gas) requires the government’s close supervision, and to proceed very cautiously, ” Arcand said, according to the Montreal Gazette.

Before issuing yesterday’s report, Quebec’s Bureau des audiences publiques sur l’environnment spent six months studying the issue, including making visits to drilling sites in both Canada and the U.S. The commissioners recommended the fracking halt, and the environmental assessment, stating that: “For certain fundamental questions, the answers are only partial or nonexistent.”

According to Bloomberg News, investment to explore Quebec’s shale gas formations has reached C$100 million ($103 million) in the past two years. Thirty-one shale wells have been drilled in the area south of the St. Lawrence River, and hydraulic fracturing has been done at 18. Despite the province’s suspension, the Montreal Gazette said fracking will still be allowed at the existing wells.

The Quebec fracking debate mirrors the one currently underway here in the U.S. As we’ve reported in the past, fracking, which involves injecting water, sand and chemicals into the earth at high pressure to shatter underground rocks and release natural gas, is exempt from federal regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. A year ago, the U.S. Congress directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to conduct a comprehensive study of fracking’s impact on water quality and the environment. Opponents of fracking hope the EPA study, which is expected to be concluded in 2012, will lead to federal oversight of the industry.

Recently, calls for better regulation of fracking in the U.S. were renewed after The New York Times published a major expose that discussed the disposal of fracking wastewater. The report revealed that natural gas drillers are sometimes shipping potentially toxic and radioactive hydraulic fracking wastewater to sewage treatment plants not equipped to treat it. This fracking wastewater, which has only been partially treated, is later released into rivers and streams used as sources of drinking water by millions of people. The Times’ fracking investigation drew on thousands of previously secret documents, including government and industry studies which found that dumping radioactive fracking waste into waterways does not sufficiently dilute it.

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