: Slick Water

Slick Water

David Turton

Slick-Water-Fracking-150Andrew Nikiforuk; Greystone Books, 2015; 350 pages; $34.99 (hardcover)

The unconventional extraction of fossil fuels continues to be a source of dispute for industry, governments and communities around the world. In what is often a technical literature, personal narratives of unconventional oil and gas development serve to humanise complex subject matter for lay readers — provoking questions about the social, economic and environmental implications of these extractive industries in the process. Legal sagas fall into this literature stream, as the Canadian journalist Andrew Nikiforuk demonstrates in his chronicle of Jessica Ernst’s near decade-long quest for transparency and justice from the Alberta Government and the energy giant Encana — following the construction and drilling of gas wells (including hydraulic fracturing activities) close to her home, near the town of Rosebud, Alberta. Ernst contends that this development has caused water aquifer contamination and these allegations form the basis of claims she has made against government regulators and Encana in the Canadian courts.

Despite its focus on Canadian circumstances, Australian readers will find much of interest in this lively book. For example, there are parallels between Ernst and the former Queensland public servant turned whistleblower, Simone Marsh (both are former industry insiders and scientists who went on to speak out against the sector). While somewhat light on the legal arguments surrounding Ernst’s struggle to sue Canadian energy and environmental protection regulators for failing to enforce their own laws (15 per cent of book sales will support this endeavour), Nikiforuk nonetheless gives significant attention to the evolution of hydraulic fracturing (which dates from the latter half of the 19th Century in the United States), in addition to methane leakages, air and water pollution. Nikiforuk’s writing is powerful and clearly sympathetic towards his subject — which leads to questions as to how even-handed the author is being at times. Freedom of information is a persistent theme throughout the text, which may explain why much of the story is told from the perspective of Ernst, rather than through statements from regulators.

It is important to note that accusations of regulatory capture and regulatory failure have previously been levelled by commentators against the Alberta provincial government for its allegedly close relationship with the oil and gas industries. However, given the emphasis of the book is on Ernst’s experiences rather than regulatory reform more generally, it is difficult to know what steps have been taken to remedy this. From the Critical Sources section, it is obvious that Nikiforuk has followed Ernst’s journey over a number of years, drawing upon his earlier newspaper reporting as reference material. I would have preferred more detailed referencing for specific quotes throughout the text, but recognise this may have been difficult in places where the author makes extensive use of interviews with key players in the still-unfolding drama. Some readers may be looking for a thorough account of the legal arguments that Ernst has engaged in (indeed one of her lawyers disagrees with some of the author’s simplified explanations on this front); if so, rest assured that references to the court cases are provided and may be examined if desired. Despite these problems, this book is a worthwhile addition to the literature on unconventional gas — addressing important themes of community participation and regulatory vigour (or lack thereof) through the prism of one determined litigant. Most importantly, it will encourage critique and reflection on the role of natural gas in Canada and elsewhere.

DAVID TURTON is a PhD student at the Fenner School of Environment & Society, ANU.

(2016) 41(1) AltLJ 74
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