Thursday, August 28, 2014

Fracking and Species at Risk: A letter to the Hon. Scott Moe, Sask Minister of Environment

Regions of Fracking in Sask and Manitoba, map by Shea Coughlin, BS Student, University of Toronto
Last week University of Toronto Political Science Professor Andrea Olive sent me a memo that one of her B.A. students had drafted to submit to the Honourable Scott Moe, Saskatchewan's Minister of Environment. The student, Danielle Coore, has been working with another student, Shea Coughlin, on the issue of fracking in Western Canada. I was impressed with their summary of how fracking puts our water, livestock, and wildlife at risk. The recommendations at the end of the memo are particularly helpful and deserve serious consideration.

Andrea tells me we may soon see a letter in the Regina Leader-Post on this topic, featuring some highlights from the memo. The memo itself, however, deserves to be read in its entirety, so here it is below.  After you read it, you may want to use the information it contains to draft your own letter to Minister Moe, who can be reached at the following coordinates:

Hon. Scott Moe
Minister of Environment and Minister Responsible for the Saskatchewan Water Security Agency
34 Main Street
Here is the original memo:
To: Honourable Scott Moe, Minister of Environment and Minister Responsible for the Saskatchewan Water Security Agency

From: Danielle Coore, BA student, University of Toronto 

Date: August 21, 2014

Subject: Fracking, Species at Risk and Water


Hydraulic Fracturing (fracking) poses serious risks to endangered species, wildlife and farm animals as well as water supply and quality in the province of Saskatchewan. Fracking is occurring in Southern Saskatchewan, as indicated on the attached map. There are ten federally listed and protected endangered species that have range in that area of the province.[i] There is also very little surface water in Southern Saskatchewan suggesting that the fracking industry is drawing from ground water and posing possible threats to both water supply and water quality. As Minister of the Environment and the Minister Responsible for the Saskatchewan Water Security Agency fracking should be a serious concern and a top priority.  This policy memo will outline the risks to endangered species and animals, water supply, and water quality. Ultimately, I recommend that Saskatchewan implement best practices, increase research, and engage in public disclosure to address these issues.  

Risks to Endangered Species, Wildlife and Farm animals

Fracking poses a danger to flora and fauna in Saskatchewan in 4 primary number ways. First, fracking results in habitat fragmentation and destruction byway of altering the prairie landscape. For example, the soil compaction and displacement that can occur at the sit of a wellpad can reduce biomass productivity and heighten soil erosion. The result is sediment and nutrient loss or nutrient transport to streams and wetlands, which can then modify stream flow and damage aquatic habitat. It can also reduce habitat and vegetation for wildlife as well as alter migration habitats.[ii] Moreover, certain species such as songbirds experience population declines as they avoid roads, trails, pipelines and related human activities in areas of fracking.[iii]

Second, noise and light pollution at wellpad sites may adversely impact species. Cumulative effects are not presently known, but studies have found that noise/light pollution adversely impacts breeding, foraging, and predator/prey responses.[iv] Specifically, oil and gas production has already had adverse impacts on the species like the Greater Sage Grouse in Southern Saskatchewan. Breeding Sage Grouse avoid areas in which oil and gas developments have occurred, and these birds also have shown to have higher mortality in these regions.[v] Populations have dwindled by 45-80% on a wide scale level.[vi] In Canada, these species only inhabit southeast Alberta and southwest Saskatchewan.[vii] Only 6% of the original historical extent of the habitat remains[viii].

Third, fracking water and chemicals have also resulted in adverse impacts or death in animals, including farm animals. A recent study monitored 96 cows: 60 cows located near a creek with fracking wastewater purposely added and 36 cows situated far from the creek. The cows near the creek were impacted: 21 died and 16 did not reproduce new calves the subsequent spring. The cows far from the creek exhibited no health issues.[ix]Thus, there is good reason to believe that wastewater from fracking impacts a range of farm animals (and wildlife) and creates breeding issues, higher rates of stillborns, birth abnormalities, and acute liver or kidney failure.[x] Saskatchewan has an obvious interest in farm animals and other wildlife that provide ecosystems services throughout the province.

Fourth, invasive species are able to spread with roads and pipelines. Where there is soil and landscape disturbance at roads, wellpads, compressor stations and pipelines there is space for invasive species.[xi] Such species compete with native species for habitat and food. This sometimes pushes native species out of their natural range and can threaten them with extinction.

Risks to water supply

Fracking poses two primary threats to water supply in Saskatchewan.

First, fracking uses sizeable quantities of water. Typically 2-4 million gallons of water are used for deep unconventional shale deposits.[xii] Water can originate from surface water, groundwater supplies, municipal water sources, and recycled wastewater.[xiii] A single well can be fracked around 20 times and consume 40, 0000 gallons of chemicals.[xiv]The hydrology of Saskatchewan is characterized by low precipitation, and droughts in the south, rendering surface water supplies as undependable.[xv] The oil and gas industry uses surface water and also draws heavily from groundwater supplies.[xvi] This will present hydrological concerns for the province in coming years.

Secondly, hydrological changes can occur due to heightened surface and ground water withdrawal. This can have unforeseen effects on streams, floodplains, wetlands, springs, shallow groundwater, and seep patterns in the province. In Saskatchewan groundwater tables and flows can be affected by withdrawal and disposal of water because huge withdrawals of the magnitude necessary for fracking alters groundwater inputs to streams and wetlands. And when that input is polluted by fracking waste there is long standing impacts on biodiversity resulting in diminished water quality and species diversity.[xvii]

Risks to Water Quality

Fracking poses two main threats to water quality in Saskatchewan.

First, groundwater and surface water can be polluted by accidental leaks from the surface of shale pads, from chemical storage or during transportation routes.[xviii] Such spills will then seep into soil and groundwater and/or runoff into streams and other bodies of water. Related, shallow ground and surface water can be affected when wastewater is accidently discharged from its storage site or at the well site. Drinkable groundwater is then threatened by natural gas and saline water movement from well leakage.[xix]This is a threat to wildlife and public health. 

Second, methane can contaminate wells.[xx]In a fracking region in Pennsylvania, methane rates were 17 times greater in wells in a 1 km span from drilling regions than those situated further away.[xxi] Other pollutants include included benzene, xylenes, purgeable hydrocarbons, and gasoline and diesel by-products. These are all chemicals associated with neurotocity, reproductive health issues, and cancer.[xxii]

How to Minimize Risks to Endangered Species

There are at three ways the Ministry of Environment can minimize risks to endangered species in Saskatchewan.

First, implement distance boundary requirements for habitat of at risk species.

Saskatchewan has requirements that do not permit for drilling in 100 m of water bodies, occupied dwellings, public institutions, or urban regions.[xxiii] These boundary requirements should be extended to include habitat for at risk species in order to minimize threats.

Second, map species habitat and this information publically available. Presently, the location of species’ habitat is unknown in the province. There are no publically available maps or GIS information. This makes it difficult for landowners (including industry) to make informed decisions about land management.

Third, require companies to drill numerous wells from one wellpad so as to minimize the amount of land disrupted.[xxiv] Habitat fragmentation and distribution is a major threat to wildlife and endangered species in Saskatchewan.

How to minimize risks to water supply

To minimize risks to water supply, Saskatchewan should establish best practices for water withdrawal and screening procedures. This should in the very least include permits based on the seasonality of withdrawals and for withdrawals over certain sizes (as already required by New Brunswick and New York jurisdictions).[xxv] Saskatchewan should ensure that water quantity monitoring is implemented before, during and after fracking has occurred, and account for effects on fish and wildlife as well as aquifer depletion. [xxvi] When using groundwater, non-potable sources should be used as this reduces competition with other water sources.[xxvii]In addition, the province should facilitate the use of municipal/industrial wastewater for fracking instead of allowing industry to overuse groundwater.[xxviii]

How to minimize risks to water quality

There are 4 primary ways Saskatchewan can reduce risk to water quality.

First, increase testing related to hydraulic fracturing. Saskatchewan does not require baseline testing for groundwater. This is a problem and the province should follow the lead of New Brunswick where there is mandatory baseline testing required at potable water wells within 500 km  of oil/gas  extraction.[xxix] Similarly, monitoring is not compulsory after hydraulic fracturing processes in Saskatchewan whereas New Brunswick requires sampling before and after fracking wells (within 30-60 days post fracking).[xxx]

Second, the least ecologically harmful chemicals should be required where possible to offset risks associated with leakage, contamination, and storage.[xxxi]

Third, increase public disclosure and involvement. Companies are not required to publically reveal what chemicals are used in fracking.[xxxii]Saskatchewan should require its fracking industry to provide this information on (as already done in British Columbia and Alberta).

Fourth, to reduce groundwater threats, Saskatchewan should have fracking located at certain and legally specified distances away from municipal, public or private water sources. And even in these cases proper impoundment liners should be mandatory so as to inhibit movement to water sources.[xxxiii]


Fracking poses many risks to endangered species, farm animals and wildlife as well as water quality and supply in Saskatchewan. Greater knowledge and attention to this effort is needed. Initiatives to address the many issues and concerns associated with fracking should include the public, government, First Nations and industry as well as other interested stakeholders.  The Ministry of Environment should take the lead in examining the relationship fracking has with various ecological processes – especially species at risk and hydrology. This is the only way the necessary effective guidelines and regulations can be established and implemented.

[i] These species include the Greater Sage Grouse, Yellow Rail Coturnicops, Spragues’s Pipit, Burrowing Owl, Northern Leopard Frog Western Boral, Piping Plover, Ferruginous Hawk, Long-Billed Curlew, Great Plain’s Toad and the Longerhead Shrike Prairie subspecies.
[ii] Council of Canadian Academies. "Environmental Impacts of Shale Extraction in Canada Ottawa (ON): The Expert Panel on Harnessing Science and Technology to Understand the Environmental Impacts of Shale Gas Extraction." 2014. (accessed May 22, 2014).
[iii] Kiviat, Erik,"Risks to biodiversity from hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the Marcellus and Utica shales," Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 2013: 1-14.
[iv] Bearer, Scott, Emily Nicholas, Tamara Gagnolet, Michele DePhilip, Tara Moberg, and Nels Johnson, "Environmental Reviews and Case Studies: Evaluating the Scientific Support of Conservation Best Management Practices for Shale Gas Extraction in the Appalachian Basin," Environmental Practice, 2012: 308-319.
[v] Aldridge, C. L., and M. S. Boyce, “Linking occurrence and fitness to persistence: a habitat-based approach for endangered greater sage-grouse," Ecological Applications , 2007: 508-526.
[vi] Aldridge, C. L., and R. M. Brigham", Distribution, abundance, and status of the greater sage-grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, in Canada," Canadian Field-Naturalist, 2003: 25-34.
[vii] (Eco Justice N.D.)
[viii] (Eco Justice N.D.)
[ix] Bamberger, Michelle, and Robert E. Oswald, "Impacts of Gas Drilling on Human and Animal Health," New Solutions, 2012: 51-77.
[x] (Bamberger and Oswald 2012)
[xi] (Kiviat 2013)
[xii] American Petroleum Institute, "Water Management Associated with," The Natural Gas Subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board. June 2010. (accessed July 27, 2014).
[xiii] (American Petroleum Institute 2010)
[xiv] (Council of Canadian Academies 2014)
[xv] SaskAdapt:Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative, Water & Drought, N.D., (accessed August 14, 2014).
[xvi] Precht, Paul, and Don Dempster, “Jurisdictional Review of Hydraulic Fracturing Regulation," Nova Scotia government. March 27, 2012. (accessed July 24, 2014).
[xvii] (Kiviat 2013)
[xviii] (Council of Canadian Academies 2014)
[xix] Council of Canadian Academies, 2014
[xx]McDermott-Levy, Ruth, Nina Kaktins and Barbara Sattler, “Fracking, the Environment, and Healt,” AJN, American Journal of Nursing, 2013: 45–51.
[xxi](McDermott-Levy, Kaktins and Sattler 2013)
[xxii] (McDermott-Levy, Kaktins and Sattler 2013)
[xxiii] (Precht and Dempster 2012, 47)
[xxiv] Smith, Trevor, "Environmental Considerations of Shale Gas Development," Chemical Engineering Progres, 2012: 53-59.
[xxv] (Precht and Dempster 2012, 49)
[xxvi] (American Petroleum Institute 2010)
[xxvii] (American Petroleum Institute 2010)
[xxviii] (American Petroleum Institute 2010)
[xxix] (Precht and Dempster 2012, 43)
[xxx] (Precht and Dempster 2012, 44)
[xxxi] (American Petroleum Institute 2010)
[xxxii] (Precht and Dempster 2012, 46)
[xxxiii] (American Petroleum Institute 2010)

Thursday, August 21, 2014

"Grasslands": one hour doc premieres August 23 on Oasis HD

Screen capture from the official website for "Grasslands" the documentary

When I began writing in this space five years ago, I decided my goal was to do my part to introduce people to the beauty and grandeur of native prairie. Sometimes that has meant showing photos of grassland birds and other creatures, and sometimes it has meant speaking out against development and policy that threatens their world.

Writing and photos of this kind, amplified by social media, will reach a certain audience, but to take the next step you need something that moves, sings, and shimmers with a radiance closer to the life imperiled by our ignorance. So when Ian Toews of 291 Film Company asked me last year to participate in his new HD documentary on grassland, I was more than happy to help.

Now, after many hours in the field with Ian and his assistant Jason Britski, the film, titled simply Grasslands, is premiering on Oasis HD. It will air for the first time this Saturday, August 23rd at 10 pm ET (that will be 8 pm here in the centre of the universe). Later this fall it will air again on City TV.

The trailer for the film (below) will give you an idea of how Ian uses a camera. He has a light touch and is especially good at letting landscape speak for itself. As always with grassland matters, the story is in a minor key, but the sights, colours, and sounds recruit our senses, encouraging us to speak and act on behalf of those whose voices are not heard in boardrooms and legislatures.

Here is a blurb on the film from its website, to be launched later this week:

“Grasslands examines the unique natural habitat of the mixed-grass prairie through four seasons from the perspectives of the ranchers, conservationists, and aboriginal people who understand it best and live by preserving it. It is guided by a powerful metaphor / symbol: The re-discovered wallows of the re-introduced bison.”

The film company has also posted four "webisodes", additional stories on the people featured in the film. 
Here is one where I get to talk a bit about birds:

So, if you are not out on real grassland on Saturday night, or you have a PVR you can record with, see if you can watch this film and then ask yourself what you can do to help conserve and restore our native prairie places here and across the Great Plains.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Fresh thoughts on stewardship from a PFRA manager

Regina naturalist Chris Harris with Glen
Elford, Caledonia-Elmsthorpe Community Pasture Manager

Ten separate ranchers discover a burrowing owl in their pasture this summer—a hypothetical scenario. How do they react? One or two might call Operation Burrowing Owl’s “Hoot Line” (1-800-667-HOOT (4668)) to report it. Others decide it is best to keep it quiet, worried that an endangered species on their Crown lease land will cause them trouble. They are convinced that government people will come and tell them what they can and can’t do on their land.
            On rare occasions, a rancher might reach for a third option—a final solution.
            “Shoot, shovel, and shut up,” as rural parlance has it, is not entirely a myth. There are people who would sooner kill a burrowing owl than take a chance that someone from a conservation agency might begin to pay attention to the acre of grass containing its nest site.
            And even if the 3-S solution is just coffee-row bravado, it helps to bleed off some of the frustration and alienation ranchers undergo as they hear mounting concerns for prairie creatures in decline (see Greater Sage-Grouse EmergencyProtection Order).
            Cattle producers are understandably defensive in a time of industry consolidation, declining beef consumption in Canada, and misguided environmentalists who blame antibiotic resistance and climate change on ranchers instead of urban demand for cheap, feedlot-produced meat.
            This side of “shoot, shovel, and shut up” there is a whole spectrum of standard defensive talking points we hear from people who raise cattle: Ranchers are the best stewards. . . . If it weren’t for us looking after the grass there wouldn’t be any native prairie. . . . I don’t need any bureaucrat coming out here to tell me how to manage this land. . . .Those birds will come back. Everything in nature goes in cycles. . . . My granddad said there were none of those birds here when he first homesteaded—maybe things are just going back to normal. . . .It’s all those hawk nest platforms they put up—that’s what hurting the birds. . . .It’s all those swift foxes they released. . . .It can’t be oil and gas because I know places where there is no oil and gas activity and the birds aren’t there either. . . .Endangered species? Hell, I’ll show you an endangered species—you’re looking at one.
            I might sympathize and even agree with one or two of these statements, but they all arise from an embattled perspective that is part of farm life in a time when the marketplace and government policy alienate those who grow our food from those who eat it. Like all of us, cattle producers are motivated by a mix of ethics that is sometimes undermined by self-interest. They are not wildlife managers; they grow meat on the hoof for profit and that profit must necessarily drive their thinking and management decisions.
            It is foolish to expect otherwise, but it is easy to forget this truth when you listen to ranchers. You want to give them the benefit of the doubt and sympathize with their predicament. It's hard not to admire their holding onto a self-image of the independent cowboy, confounded though it may be by an opposing desire for the public and its elected representatives to compensate them for their good stewardship.

            And that is why it is always refreshing to hear a rural, grassland perspective that is not as compromised by self-interest and the defensive posture of the cattle producer with key position statements on hand.

Chestnut-collared longspurs were everywhere at Caledonia-Elmsthorpe

Last week, a birding friend of mine, Chris Harris, and I drove south to Caledonia-Elmsthorpe pasture—one of the Agriculture Canada community pastures that most of us still call PFRA, for the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration that has cared for more than two million acres of grassland in Canada since the 1930s. Chris had phoned the pasture manager, Glen Elford, ahead of time to get permission for our visit. Chris asked Glen about a pair of burrowing owls that had been reported in the pasture this summer. He said that Glen seemed quite knowledgeable and very interested in the birds, which is what I have come to expect from many PF managers.
            “He wanted me to know that he wasn’t the kind of guy who refuses to report endangered species. ‘The more people know about those owls, the better’ he told me.”
            That evening, we arrived at the pasture’s edge along a public road, parked the car and got out. As we stood peering into the expanse of grass heading west and watching Chestnut-collared Longspurs rollercoaster up and down in the air, a black truck slowly pulled up behind us. The door opened our way, showing its Government of Canada logo, and out stepped a large figure in boots, blue jeans, belt buckle, and ball cap. 

Glen Elford is a long-standing pasture manager in the PFRA system whose experience and knowledge has maintained the public benefits of wildlife conservation and biodiversity on these large tracts of publicly-owned native grasslands.

“Chris?” he said, hand outstretched. It was Glen, Caledonia-Elmsthorpe’s long time manager, heading back to pasture HQ where his wife was waiting with supper. But he was in no hurry. We talked about the rains of June, the grass, and he asked us about what we had seen so far. We pointed to the longspurs, and the soft trills of the Baird’s sparrow drifting out across the speargrass.
            Eventually, I had to ask the question I ask every PF employee: how do you feel about the government shutting down the PF system and turning the land over to the provinces?
            “Well, can’t say I like it,” Glen began, “but there’s not a whole lot I can do about it. I’ve been here a long time. My kids grew up here. When you put your life into a place doing something you believe in, you want to think it will continue after you are done. You don’t want to hear that it isn’t worth keeping.”
            When conversation got around, as it inevitably does, to the question of management and the grazing patrons taking control of management decisions, Glen was polite and circumspect, careful not to judge others or speak hastily, but it was clear that he believes that the PFRA quality of management will be hard for private grazing co-ops to match.
            “It depends,” he said, “Sure there are lots of good stewards out there, but there’s some bad ones too, people who just don’t know better. We get some patrons telling us we should put more cattle on the pasture to use more grass. They mean well, they see all the grass and think it should all be used, but they just don’t understand what it takes to keep a pasture healthy from the roots on up.”
            But, he added, in the province’s southwest, where there is a long-standing culture of ranching native grass, there are people with the knowledge to make it work. He is most worried about the pastures like his and others away from the southwest, where the grazing patrons are often mixed farmers who do not have their own native range, nor the experience it takes to manage it.
            “Not everyone who owns cattle is a good manager. Some are, some aren’t.”
            Glen learned got a grounding in good management watching his father ranch on the native grass of their family holdings next to Grassland National Park, in a region where the low carrying capacity of the grass tends to weed out any poor stewards over time. Adapting that ethic and respect for native range to his work as a PFRA manager, he became known for his interest in the birds and other grassland creatures.
            “At workshops, sometimes I’d be called on to talk about the burrowing owls we had here [in previous decades they had as many as ten pairs breeding]. I went to a conference once on prairie conservation a while back, with lots of people working to figure out how to conserve this kind of land and the wildlife. . . . Things are not looking good, but I stay positive. There’s no point in getting down about it all.” 
              Though supper was waiting, Glen insisted on taking us himself to see the last burrowing owl pair at Caledonia-Elmsthorpe. 

The burrowing owl, one of Canada's most endangered species, needs the publicly accountable management systems and governance model that community pastures have traditionally been able to provide

At first we could see only the one adult, but when I scanned my binoculars across the grass nearby I found five sets of eyes staring back at me. Glen gave out a laugh as he looked through Chris’s spotting scope at the young owls, freshly out of the burrow. You could hear in his voice a certain proprietary satisfaction in knowing that there would be a good brood of burrowing owls on his pasture this year.
young burrowing owls down in the wheatgrass
Glen having a closer look through Chris's scope

            We continued to talk about the owls, about ferruginous hawks, and the night hawk circling overhead. Just before we parted ways, Glen recalled something he was told long ago: “When the birds start to go, we should pay attention because we will likely be next.” 

            The birds are going, and now we are losing the very people who have the skills and the public infrastructure to manage grassland with their conservation and restoration in mind.
like many of the federal community pastures, Caldedonia-Elmsthorpe is a place with 
hidden beauty that most people never see

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