Last March the government of Alberta, Canada, learned the dirty news: It isn't just injection wells that raise the chance of an earthquake in quake-sensitive zones; hydraulic fracturing of shale does as well.
In fact, say researchers, "nearly all" of the quakes magnitude 3 or larger to hit either side of the Canadian Rockies were a result of fracking.
Over the last few years, researchers at the University of Calgary studied the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and seismic activity. Their investigations, for the most part, received little attention from media. But after 4.4-magnitude earthquake registered in Alberta's oil belt last January, those findings reached the front page.
The fact that British Columbia's populous west coast is at risk for earthquakes and tsunamis is common knowledge and built into city and architectural planning. But man-made earthquakes in Canada's remote regions like Fox Creek, where populations are now on the increase, was another matter. And it didn't escape politicians' attention that the area of concern comprised Canada's largest and most sought-after natural gas reserves, the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin.
Since the report's release, one BC minister called for an immediate moratorium on fracking and a "comprehensive and cumulative scientific review" of the risks of the process.
"Now we have the scientific evidence showing a clear link between fracking and earthquakes, but we really have no idea what the risks of this increased seismic activity amount to," said Andrew Weaver, MLA for the Vancouver Island district of Oak Bay-Gordon Head. "We are flying blind."
Alberta's traditionally conservative government was initially more cautious in its response. It directed the province's energy regulator to speed up the agency's own report on the relationship between fracking and quakes.
And many in the progressive party now want change. With more than 400 seismic events in the Fox Creek area of Alberta since January 2015, towns where fracking is a booming concern are beginning to demand more information. Residents unsettled by the quakes are seeking new places to live, and communities are feeling the impact.
But the greatest evidence that change may be on the way for Alberta's oil and gas industry can be found in the results of last year's provincial elections. Not only did voters elect the first New Democrat Party (progressive) premier in its history, but they also put gas royalties and fracking concerns squarely on the list of issues to address. This month's NDP convention saw more than 60 calls from local constituencies for changes or investigations regarding fracking, including at least one call for a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing within Alberta's borders.
So, will earthquakes spell the end of Alberta's gas boom? Unlikely, at least for now. The NDP shelved the resolutions calling for changes to fracking regulations and dropped any discussion of a moratorium on the industry. Earthquakes or no, the oil and gas industry still offers the best injection of revenue there is for a prairie province with limited industries. The question is, however: Will it continue to be enough?
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.