Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing: An insider’s stand against fracking

OpenCanada is featuring excerpts from all five Shaughnessy Cohen finalists this week. Today, Andrew Nikiforuk's Slick Water: Fracking and One Insider’s Stand Against the World’s Most Powerful Industry. 

By: /
April 12, 2016
Slick Water

One of five finalists for this year's Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, below we feature award-winning, Calgary-based writer Andrew Nikiforuk and his book, Slick Water: Fracking and One Insider’s Stand Against the World’s Most Powerful Industry.

Jessica Ernst, an oil patch consultant, lived a quiet life in rural Alberta, until one day she realized she could light her tap water on fire. A major Canadian oil company had fracked hundreds of gas wells near her home, contaminating the village’s water supply,” the jury writes. 

 “Told through the lens of his inspiring protagonist, Andrew Nikiforuk’s book explores the history of fracking, as well as the environmental and human toll that our society’s obsession with oil has wrought. Slick Water is an impressive piece of investigative journalism and storytelling.”

The following passage is excerpted from Slick Water: Fracking and One Insider’s Stand Against the World’s Most Powerful Industry, copyright: Andrew Nikiforuk ©2015. Published by Greystone Books and David Suzuki Institute. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

‘Is it worth a fight?’

While Ernst talked to rural Newfoundlanders, Brent O’Neil, an international oil-patch driller, sat down in Calgary with lawyer Glenn Solomon to get some legal advice. O’Neil’s mother, Ann Craft, owned an eighty-acre farm near Ponoka, Alberta, and in 2012 her land got fracked. When Quicksilver resources worked over four shallow coal seams north of Craft’s home, a fracture went out of zone, lifted up her front porch, and buckled several outbuildings. Alberta Environment had promised to investigate all the wells drilled within a two-kilometre radius, and also to catalogue the fracking fluids used. It had even ordered a hydrogeological study. But Quicksilver talked the regulator out of such rigor, and no proper investigation ever took place. To add insult to injury, a trucking company delivered tainted produced water to Craft’s cistern. She bathed in the toxic brew, and it nearly killed her.

After two years of wrangling with the government, Brent O’Neil wanted to know what chances his mother might have if she sued the regulators for negligence. O’Neil taped his conversation with Solomon on his iPhone, because he planned to share it with his mother later. 

“Take a step back,” Solomon advised O’Neil in fatherly tones. “I told you on the phone, I act for ERCB when they’re sued on these types of things. There’s only one such case in Alberta that I’m aware of where they’re using outside counsel, which is me at the moment. And that’s an oil spill out in the Rosebud area, which has become more of a political grandstanding issue that a legal dispute.”

“Over an oil spill?” asked O’Neill for clarification.

“This was a fracking case,” Solomon replied.

“Oh,” said O’Neill.

“It was alleged contamination of a water well. Doesn’t appear to be any personal injuries. And …" 

“Just groundwater contamination?” interjected O’Neill.

“Groundwater contamination,” confirmed Solomon. He continued: “Encana is the oil company. They’ve said, ‘We deny that we’ve done anything but we’ll give you a lifetime supply of potable water anyway, because we just don’t care and we don’t want to fight with you.’ You know, it’s Encana, and they have all the money in the world. And Alberta Environment and the ERCB have been sued in that one as well. I can tell you it’s a case that is seven years old. I haven’t yet filed a statement of Defense because it’s been tied up in preliminary application … because that’s what happens when you start suing Alberta Environment and ERCB.”

Solomon went on: “We keep on telling the plaintiff’s lawyers, look, if you get rid of us [the dispute with the regulators], Encana is going to resolve this with you, cause they always do. That’s what they do. Encana has said, “Look, you know, we’re happy to pay for this, without admitting or denying liability … You know, it’s … this is a rounding error on our balance sheet, for God’s sakes. Would you stop being a nuisance?’”

“But the PR and the bad publicity that comes from it for everybody, is that even worth it?” asked O’Neill.

“Encana, ERCB, and Alberta Environment just don’t care about that either,” responded Solomon. “They just don’t care about bad publicity because … what tends to happen is that the people who go yapping to the media are typically seen as nutcases.”

O’Neill then asked a direct question. “On your experience with fracking and stuff, where, what’s the success rate?” O’Neill noted that Quicksilver had had a claim filed against them by Dale Zimmerman, the Wetaskiwin farmer, involving fracking and groundwater contamination. “What’s the Canadian climate for that kind of stuff? Is it worth a fight?”

“I’m not aware of any cases that have gone to trial where fracking damage has been successfully proved,” Solomon replied. “But, again, most of these cases resolve. ‘Okay, we damaged your water well. We’ll just set you up with potable water through a tank system forever, because, you know, we just spent a million dollars drilling this well that we made a hundred million on. And it’s costing us an extra three hundred thousand. We’re okay.’”

Solomon elaborated on the industry’s attitude: “‘You know, we don’t need to litigate with you, we don’t even need to know that it was our fault. We’re just happy to pay you. And by the way, by doing that you shut up, the regulators stay off our back, we get to do it again down the street.’ And so that’s the oil company approach on these [things]. The people who typically are suing are getting a lot of resistance, and it’s a knock-’em-down, drag-’em-out brawl, where the oil companies are not resolving it. If you drag in the regulators, I can tell you from experience … it’s Word War III. And Encana, Alberta Environment, and the ERCB, as it turns out, all have effectively unlimited resources. You know they have office towers full of experts. They have bank accounts full of cash. The cost of having even an army of lawyers is something that they wouldn’t even notice, and they don’t have to answer for it. So anyone who wants to pick that fight is literally crazy.”

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