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Industry disputes report's go-slow fracking advice but environmentalists agree

EDMONTON - Environmental groups say they feel vindicated following a report by top scientists that says concerns about natural gas fracking are real and its health and environmental impacts not clearly understood.

But industry officials say those issues aren't enough to justify a suggested go-slow approach to the booming industry.

"We would not agree with that," David Pryce of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said Thursday. "The fact that we've been in this business for decades in the natural gas business and 10 years in the business of hydraulic fracturing, we've got a great deal of experience in this place."

On Wednesday, the Council of Canadian Academies released a 292-page report on fracking based entirely on publicly available, peer-reviewed research.

It said the scale and pace at which shale gas resources are being exploited through the use of fracking is challenging the ability to assess and manage their potential environmental impacts.

"I feel vindicated," said John Bennett of the Sierra Club. "The areas on health, on leaks, on groundwater contamination — (the panel) agrees with us that these questions are unanswered and we need to know more before we allow widespread use of fracking across the country."

The report suggested fracking could threaten groundwater, but the size of that risk is unknown. It also said effects, both singly and in combination, of the many chemicals used in fracking are not understood — especially when many jurisdictions don't even require companies to list what they're injecting underground.

The panel of scientists also concluded that fracking may have greater climate-change impacts than previously thought because of natural gas leaking from wells.

The report specifically states that Canada's 10-year experience with fracking isn't enough to draw conclusions on its impact. So far, so good isn't good enough, it said, given that long-term effects could play out over decades.

The report called for significant research to answer questions and to establish environmental baselines before the industry —which has potential in nearly every province and territory — picks up more speed.

Duncan Kenyon of the Pembina Institute said the report points to an opportunity to learn from mistakes made in the oilsands, where the industry boomed before basic questions were answered and proper monitoring implemented.

"We haven't learned from that oilsands experience. And here we are, with potentially a larger resource spread out over a much larger landscape, and here's a report saying, 'Here are the things we don't know,' and they're cautioning us."

Government ministers hastened to reassure that fracking is safe and well-regulated.

In British Columbia, Energy Minister Rich Coleman said: "(The report) does not give me cause for concern. We've never had contamination from a drill. We've never had a drill stem leak or fail.

"We do this really well."

Carrie Sancartier, spokeswoman for Alberta Environment, said the government welcomed the council's report and will consider its findings.

"We are continuing to review and improve our regulations," she said. "We have a proven safety record."

New Brunswick Energy Minister Craig Leonard said his province's rules are some of the strongest in North America and that halting the industry would put an end to the data-gathering the report calls for.

"If you have a moratorium you can't do any of that because there's no activity taking place. A moratorium defeats the whole purpose of trying to develop that information base.”

Federal Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, whose department commissioned the study, dismissed its findings in an email.

"Shale gas deposits can be developed safely, responsibly, and in compliance with the strict rules in place to protect Canadians," she wrote. "We will continue to work with the provinces to ensure Canadians benefit from the safe, responsible development, transportation and use of our natural resources."

Pryce praised the report's summation of fracking research and its call for development regulations that would account for regional differences. He agreed with its suggestions for monitoring and more study to answer outstanding questions.

But industry should be able to proceed and deal with problems as they arise, he said.

"If you go slower and you don't do anything, you don't learn anything."

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