Course:CONS200/Hydraulic fracturing (fracking): social and environmental costs in Alberta

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Active hydraulic fracking site in Alberta. Via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

Hydraulic fracking is the process of accessing what was considered to be inaccessible natural gas and oil found in shale formations, through the use of horizontal drilling, modern technology and large amounts of chemicals and water [1]. The Albertan Tar Sands cover roughly 14 million hectares of Alberta’s northern land, intruding into the Canadian boreal forests. Within a 12-year span (2000-2012), 5.5% of forest loss was caused by Alberta’s oil and gas industry (World Resources Institute, 8[2]). Because of the rising demand for oil and gas, the boreal forest is constantly being cleared for the expansion of the tar sands. Removal of forested land results in the loss of a major carbon sink, wildlife endangerment, increased emissions via hydraulic fracking, along with many more negative environmental impacts. Besides the clear environmental impacts of hydraulic fracking, there are clear sociological effects affecting both physical and mental heath of humans, as well as causing social issues regarding conflicting interests.

Environmental Impacts

Hydraulic fracking has significant effects on the environment surrounding the fracking site. The effects are reported in the air, water, and land.

Air Emissions

Hydraulic fracking, is considered to be a “bridge” technology, is considered to be a short-term solution for the world’s current dependence on imported energy sources, while waiting for sustainable energy. [3], is not completely emissions free. Hydraulic fracking air emissions stem from all stages of gas extraction, the vehicles and machinery required to transport and extract the oil, as well as the infrastructure preparation [4]. Prior to the actual extraction and production of gas from the ground, emissions are being emitted, polluting the site and marking the start of hydraulic fracking pollution. A large amount of construction is required in order to begin the process of fracking, including the “building access roads, clearing a 3- to 5-acre well pad, and drilling, generates emissions of CO2, PM, and NOx from diesel-powered truck traffic and off-road equipment” [4].

The transportation and vehicular activity related to hydraulic fracking are the sources of diesel emissions, as well as ultrafine particulate matter [3]. These emissions are considered to be carcinogens by the World Health Organization [5]. Therefore, these emissions are not only detrimental for the environment and air quality, but also affect the livelihood of humans, as increased exposure increases the likelihood of cancer.


Water is a key component in the process of hydraulic fracking. This process consists of fracturing rock via high-pressured water to create fractures for extraction of oil, as well as acting a substrate for transferring proppant materials to pry open the fracture [6]. The use of water in this process does not affect ground water, however it is the shear amount of water consumption that hydraulic fracking uses which negatively impacts the environment. Per fracking well, roughly 9.6 million gallons of water is used [7]. In combination with the growing global oil and gas requirement, the world’s limited water supply is also at risk of contamination. High water-pressure and temperature enables the oil to be separated and extracted from the sand and clay it is intertwined with. The refinement process also uses numerous chemicals and acids in order to process high-grade oil, and many of these chemicals remain suspended within the water after the oil has been refined. Disposal of these chemicals is a difficult process and is often improperly handled.

Tailing Ponds

Tailing ponds, another use of water in the fracking industry, are a very controversial component of these processes. These bodies of water are the recycled remnants of the extraction processes, where they are further processed to separate the remaining bitumen [8]. These ponds are the toxic by-product of the oil fracking and processing system containing clays, sand, residual oil, acids, and waste products, and they represent a significant threat to the local water systems[8] [9]. A water test conducted by University of Alberta professor, Dr. David Schindler, revealed that abnormally high levels of toxic metals were present in the Athabasca River, which runs through the heart of the oil sands [10]. The tailing ponds are the main cause for this toxicity, as the metals are known to leach into the surrounding ground water and local bodies of water. According to Environmental Defense [9], these tailing ponds “Contain a number of toxic chemicals, including five of the World Health Organization’s ten chemicals of major public concern. If these chemicals were to enter the Athabasca River system, they can affect the local wildlife, precipitation, fishing industry, and many other aspects of Northern Alberta and Saskatchewan.”


The purpose of tailing ponds is for the suspended chemicals and other toxic elements to settle and consolidate on the floor of the ponds, which allows the water to be reused in the fracking process. However, the problem is in the construction of these tailing ponds, which can result in the leaching of suspended chemicals into the ground and bodies of water in close proximity. As seen in the image below, the tailings ponds are located very close to the river.

Athabasca River inclose proximity to tailings ponds. By NASA Earth Observatory via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

While the concept of tailing ponds is environmentally conscious, it is the execution and construction of them that ultimately causes controversy. If tailing ponds were constructed with less porous material, the level of leached particles would significantly drop. Given present day technologies, it is more reasonable to alter the tailing ponds rather than to find new techniques to extract and refine oil.

Unfortunately, due to the extreme importance of this industry to the Canadian economy, the oil sands contamination is often “swept under the rug” when it comes to national environmental issues. Those within the oil and gas industry have a very strong influence over the government and media, making any environmental strategies difficult to pass.


The Boreal

The Canadian Boreal Forest extends from Yukon to Newfoundland and Labrador, covering approximately 55% of Canada’s land mass (Canadian Encyclopedia, 2[11]). It is one of the largest carbon sinks in the world as it is dominated by dense forests. Its unique range of landscapes from wetlands to subalpine zones allows it to house a diverse group of wildlife that can only be found in Canada. The Boreal forests act as a natural, global air and water filter and purifier which regulates the earth’s systems.

Global boreal distribution (notice Northern Alberta is dominated by these forests). By Vzb83 via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0


Northern Alberta once used to be covered by dense boreal forests, however since the discovery and exploitation of the oil-rich sands the land has since been converted to barren, chemically infused, industrial flats. The increase in demand for oil and gas has led to the rapid expansion of tar sands into boreal regions. The conversion of these lands has resulted in the loss of natural carbon sinks and the increase in carbon emissions via hydraulic fracturing and processing. The expansion of the tar sands has directly magnified climate change’s impacts on all of the natural systems. Evidence of habitat loss and reduction is clear by looking at species such as the Woodland Caribou, which can no longer be found near their historical range where human development now resides.


Tailing ponds constantly leach chemicals, acids, and toxins into the soil, which destroy the soils in and around the tar sands. All of the chemical inputs result in the soil being hazardous to the surrounding environment; trees can no longer survive, soil fauna are exposed to deadly compounds, and animal wildlife are forced to retreat to the boreal limits. This is a major long-term environmental impact, and even if oil and gas were to be replaced and no longer extracted, the repercussions of soil degradation will continue for many years.


As the negative long-term effects of hydraulic fracking have now been established and will continue to be problematic in years to come, the only remediation is to halt oil and gas production. However, the Canadian economy relies heavily on the oil and gas industry and as short-term profits and economic benefits outweigh long-term pollution effects, we will not be able to make this decision with the many powerful individuals having stakes in this multibillion-dollar industry.

Social Impacts

Health Effects

The record of adverse health effects reported by individuals living in close proximity to shale gas drilling sites is extensive, ranging from minor to life threatening diseases. Reports include problems with reproductive cycles, respiratory functions, gastrointestinal disease, neurological disorders and different forms of cancer.

Animal Reports

Reports illustrating the effects of contaminated water on animals are significant because they serve as examples for human exposures. Additionally, animals have shorter lifespans and present larger opportunities for data collection. A study that looked at the lifespan of livestock near gas drilling sites in Colorado found a higher mortality rate and decreased fertility rate within cattle and other animals due to ingestion of contaminated well water [12]. More than 100 chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing are known endocrine disruptors and have shown to disrupt reproductive reproductive cycles in animals and humans [13]. In that same study, high concentrations of hydrocarbons were found in the organ tissues of the deceased livestock. A toxicology report determined that the most common cause of death was kidney failure or respiratory failure due to tissue damage. Similarly, farms throughout Alberta have observed similar trends of increased cattle death in agriculture and range land. Some farms in northern Alberta located near hydraulic fracturing sites have also determined high concentrations of strontium and uranium in their agriculture soils.

The effects of Hydrocarbons and chemical compounds commonly used in hydraulic fracturing have been extensively documented in fish species as well. A report published from the University of Alberta showed that fresh water fish exposure to chemicals within fracking fluid produced “oxidative stress” of liver and gill tissues resulting in significant damage to these area [14] [15]. Another study from Colorado found “higher than normal” concentrations of endocrine disrupting receptors in ground water and rivers surrounding areas of high natural gas drilling [13].

Human Health

Adverse effects to Human health is most likely caused by the leaking of contaminants used in fracking fluids into groundwater and surface water. An American study looked at 1000 complaints made to state regulators about water contamination in areas of oil and gas extraction. 17% of these complaints were directly linked to regulators in the oil and gas industry even though historical surface and ground water data showed virtually no cases of contamination ever occurring throughout these areas [16]. Currently, Alberta is home to more then 174,000 Hydraulic Fracturing wells and 431,000 kilometers of pipelines, most of which is located in northern regions of the province [17]. Local reports of these areas suggest that Individuals living north of Edmonton are more likely to develop leukemia and other types of cancer. Additionally, individuals within the communities of Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan are 30% more likely to develop cancer. Anecdotal reports of nausea, headaches, skin rashes, joint pain and respiratory problems are also more likely to occur in populations living in areas with higher rates of hydraulic fracturing [18] [19].

Mental Health

Hydraulic fracturing offers many job opportunities throughout northern Alberta, resulting in the temporary expansion of many rural communities. The psychosocial consequences of the “boom/bust” cycle that often occurs when industries impinge on small towns can be detrimental to communities and the individuals who live within them [20] [21]. Due to the fact that communities neighboring hydraulic fracturing sites are at a higher risk of physical disease and illness, a broad range of social, behavioral and emotional symptoms are more likely to occur within them as well. Individuals may feel disconnected from their communities and have a greater chance of developing depression, heightened anxiety, and stress [22]. Additionally, a large influx of unfamiliar workers moving to rural areas may disrupt preexisting social traditions within communities and instill distrust among local residents [20]. Local community members may also become more worried about increased crime rates caused by seasonal workers and rising housing costs caused by increased demand for housing [23]. Although more information is required to determine if Albertans living in rural towns dominated by hydraulic fracturing industries areas are currently experiencing effects to their mental health, the continued expansion of shale gas development in rural communities will undoubtedly alter existing community dynamics and community landscapes.

Impacted communities may feel a sense of disconnect due to an influx of non-resident workers and businesses operating around them. Social disruption may be particularly problematic for rural areas, such as northern Alberta, where towns are often characterized by long-standing social/political roles and relationships that can be challenged in the face of boomtown development. Physical landscape transformations due to shale gas extraction may alter individuals’ perception of community landscapes and disrupt community environmental values. This is possibly the result of heightened mental stress in response to landscape transformations and diminishing environments. In a study of 104 fracking-impacted residents of Appalachia, Virgina, it was found that respondents experienced disruptions to social cohesion, erosion to community pride, feelings of being exploited, and a breakdown of shared community values [24]. This demonstrates that the introduction of hydraulic fracturing to rural communities can have profound effects on both the community and its individual members. Individuals in rural Albertan communities affected by hydraulic fracturing are most likely facing at least some of the mental health symptoms mentioned previously. Changes in community dynamics and environmental destruction caused by natural gas extraction may have profound psychological effects on rural community members in Alberta.

Research Issues Regarding Human Health

Unfortunately, most reports of adverse health effects caused by shale gas extraction are overlooked by policy makers due to the fact that they lack the credibility of published academic work. Currently, there is little research demonstrating the direct effects of hydraulic fracturing fluid exposure to human health [25]. This is because quantifying the health effects of hydraulic fracturing among populations living within shale extraction regions would require long-term epidemiological studies and lots of funding. Additionally, while some negative health effects may appear relatively quickly after exposure, long term effects may take years to develop and may appear only after years of exposure. Hydraulic Fracturing companies have also far outpaced the rate in which these studies require to demonstrate the effects of shale extraction on human health [26] [27].

Effects on Indigenous Communities

First Nations rights and interests are commonly ignored when hydraulic fracking practices and locations are being decided. By Mathieu Côté via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0

Perhaps one of the most negatively affected communities as a result of the exploding development of hydraulic fracturing are Indigenous peoples. Having already experienced centuries of marginalization from Canadian society, Indigenous communities are further denied access to both basic human rights and customary land rights as oil and gas companies develop fracking wells on their traditional land [28]. Due to their close proximity to the wells, Indigenous communities receive all of the direct effects of hydraulic fracturing that Canadians living in densely populated cities will likely never have to see.

One aspect, the lack of equality in the decision-making of fracking development, seems to govern all of the other mistreatments in these communities. Both the provincial and national government are legally obligated to consult with the First Nations community before building wells on their traditional territories [28] Although this process may sound fair and like a collaboration in theory, in practice it is far less like a consultation and instead more similar to a one-sided conversation. At the end of most consultations, oil and gas companies have not shifted at all from their original desires and plans to develop the area, despite the local people’s concerns [28]. Governments at the local, provincial, and national levels tend to turn a blind eye to the asymmetrical decision-making process because the hydraulic fracturing industry generates millions of dollars for both the government and private companies. Tailfeathers argues that as long as Indigenous rights to land and resources remain unresolved with the government, private companies can continue to invade their ancestral land as the communities do not have a clear, legal, and sole right to the land[29].

The Blood Tribe's reserve in Southern Alberta is often a target of hydraulic fracturing developments. By Galt Museum & Archives on The Commons via Wikimedia Commons. No known copyright restriction.

The cascading effects of the encroachment on Indigenous peoples’ lands include mistreatment of Indigenous women, corruption within Tribes, lack of local employment, and negative health impacts. One of the lesser known issues is that there has been an increase in missing women, sex trafficking, and rape since the introduction of workers from the oil and gas industry [30], although evidence was not provided on whether these acts are committed by community members or the oil workers. The Blood reserve, located in southern Alberta and part of the largest reserve in Canada, has had issues with a corrupted Tribal council as a result of the monetary benefits in the fracking industry[29] and McGill[30]. The Chief and council signed a deal in 2010 with Murphy Oil and Bowood Energy, allotting the Tribe 50 million dollars, without informing nor receiving the consent of the Tribe [30]. When the Tribe was notified of what had happened, the council gave out “distribution checks valued at 800 dollars each” l[30] to suppress any protest. This further perpetuated corruption within the community as residents felt that they couldn’t speak against the council after accepting the money. The fracking industry brings its own workers and provides some jobs to residents such as the Chief and the council in the case of the Blood Tribe [29], allowing some individuals involved to become very rich. This can be a positive aspect of the industry, however, it should also be made aware that it provides jobs only to a select few rather than to the community as a whole.

Any impact that fracking has on the environment is also an impact on those that subsist on the land: Indigenous communities. Indigenous communities are particularly susceptible to negative effects on the environment because their livelihood depends directly on it. Through the disruption of game migration paths, bioaccumulation of toxins in fish, and contaminated freshwater[28], Indigenous peoples are essentially denied access to the basic rights of food and water.

Remedial Actions

Although the exact structure of relationships varies with each fracking community, the main categories of actors in the Blood Tribe of southern Alberta are provincial and federal governments, oil and gas companies, the Blood Tribe Chief and council, and the populace of the Blood Tribe [29]. The current order of power in decision-making from greatest to least is the government and private companies together, followed by the Chief and council, and finally the populace. This order originates from a long-standing colonial approach of governments to relationships with Indigenous peoples and it has allowed for injustices to be committed towards Indigenous peoples.

Elle-Maija Tailfeathers, member of the Blood First Nations, and Ellen Gabriel of the Mohawk, suggested two actions that both Indigenous residents and non-Indigenous citizens should take to advocate for the rights of Indigenous peoples: to become educated on the issues with fracking and to voice concerns to all levels of government on “climate action and energy policies” [30] [29].

In a literature review, Moore et al. discuss three approaches to Indigenous-Government relationships that have been practiced in Western Canada instead of the conventional colonial approach[28]. These approaches ideally aim to balance the power-share between private companies and the public, however Moore et al. also discuss limitations in how they are currently being practiced. The three approaches are co-management, collaborative environmental governance, and impact benefit agreements [28]. In co-management, the government and Indigenous communities ideally have equal legal rights to decision making in resource extraction, but this been skewed because Indigenous representatives are often influenced by the Crown. Collaborative environmental governance decreases emphasis on legalities and instead focuses on an informal collaboration between many stakeholders. While reducing the power of the oil industry, this model also reduces the power of First Nations groups to a stakeholder. Impact benefit agreements promise First Nations peoples a share in economic benefits of fracking but they also prevent First Nations peoples from sharing terms of the agreement to the public and to other First Nations groups.

With all the approaches taken into consideration, the first step of remedial action that should be taken is both a public and governmental understanding and respect for Indigenous peoples’ rights to their ancestral land. Rather than directing all blame towards oil companies, there should instead be a responsibility in public hands. It is only with a public shift in attitude towards Indigenous peoples that there can be enough support for legal changes in their favour. Similarly, it is only with a loud and persistent voice of the public that the government can make changes to its current energy policies. Indigenous communities should continue to educate the public, the public should create a demand for change, and in turn governments and private companies should put action to the citizens’ demands.


Hydraulic fracking, though economically beneficial for the province of Alberta, has many negative effects, both social and environmental. The environmental effects are significant, affecting terrestrial ecosystems as well as the air quality of the area of the fracking sites, and the surrounding communities. These effects, then cause harm to animals and humans, affect their health and well-being. Similarly, hydraulic fracking also has effects on the mental of people and is a source of social disagreement and protests, as a result of conflicting interests and lack of consultation. Though there have been negative social and environment impacts as a result of the industry, it must be noted that hydraulic fracking does have it's benefits, mostly economic. This billion industry is a major of source of income for the province and Canada, as well as a major job source, employing many Canadians.


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