Caution

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We aren’t particularly skilled at predicting the impacts of fracking. Is the waste dangerous? Which chemicals are being used? Does it cause groundwater contamination?

One of the things fracking does seem to cause is earthquakes. Scientists have concluded that a 4.6 magnitude earthquake that struck northeast British Columbia in August 2015 was directly caused by fracking activity.

This is bad news because we are really really terrible at predicting earthquakes.

So an unpredictable technology produces an unpredictable natural disaster. This seems an appropriate time to remind ourselves of the precautionary principle.

The precautionary principle is simple: there is a duty to prevent public harm where there is reason to suspect a risk, even when all the evidence has not yet been acquired. The burden of proof is thus transferred to the person or organization taking the potentially risky action. In this case: the fracking industry.

To some extent, the fracking industry has shot itself in the foot with all of this uncertainty.

It’s hard to know exactly how dangerous fracking is, because the industry has been less than forthcoming about its activities. For example, most companies don’t reveal the chemical composition of the fluids injected underground to aid in the fracking process. Without this information, it’s hard to judge the dangers to surrounding groundwater supplies.

Even where full cooperation exists, we don’t know everything we want to know about fracking and its impacts on the environment. Methane escapes into the atmosphere, but we don’t know how much. Air pollution is probably affecting neighbouring communities, but it’s hard to say for sure. In a small sample, it looks like fracking contributes to surface water contamination, but more research is needed. The fracking industry has predictably seized upon any uncertainty in these reports, but it seems very unlikely that the missing details just happen to be all of the ones that would exonerate fracking.

And then there’s the unpredictability of earthquakes.

Earthquakes are so deeply unknowable that an Italian court tried to charge a handful of scientists with manslaughter charges after an unexpected earthquake killed 309 residents of the city of L'Aquila in 2009. It’s true that those scientists weren’t giving accurate earthquake predictions, but what ultimately saved them from jail is the fact that nobody else could reasonably claim to be any better at making predictions.

Progress Energy Canada Ltd., whose operations it was that caused the BC quake, shut things down “as soon as the magnitude was known”. Fracking-induced earthquakes are regular enough to have prompted the formation of organizational policies, but not predictable enough to actually do anything about it except sit back and wait to see how bad it is.

Even a loose adoption of the precautionary principle would advise that, since we don’t – and maybe even can’t – know very much about the earthquake-related risks of fracking, we shouldn’t take the risk to public safety.

The growing evidence of widespread pollution and earthquakes should mean the fracking industry has to prove itself safe before continuing its activities.

If we can’t know when an earthquake is going to hit, it may be of some comfort if we can say for sure that it won’t be our fault.

Stu Campana is an international environmental consultant, with expertise in water, energy and waste management. He is the Water Team Leader with Ecology Ottawa, has a master’s in Environment and Resource Management and writes the A\J Renewable Energy blog. Follow him on Twitter: @StuCampana.

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