The story of one activist's anti-fracking stance

March 18, 2016
Jessica Ernst ignites water contaminated with methane by fracking.

Slick Water: Fracking – and One Insider's Stand Against the World's Most Powerful Industry
Andrew Nikiforuk
Greystone Books/David Suzuki Institute
2015, 350 pages

The fracturing of rocks to mine more fossil fuels was born with the oil business, writes the Canadian journalist, Andrew Nikiforuk, in Slick Water.

During the world's first oil boom in Pennsylvania in the 1850s, highly volatile nitro-glycerine and other explosives were used on sluggish wells with lethal risk, to turn them into gushers by creating new fractures to channel blocked oil to the surface.

The coal seam gas (CSG) industry joined the perilous fracturing party as, ironically, a safety measure to vent methane from coal pits to reduce the hazard of explosive methane disasters in the coalmining industry. Now, the deadly coalmining by-product, methane, has been transformed into an allegedly friendly fuel, disarmingly re-christened as “natural gas”.

Decades of “wild experimentation” in the CSG technology of hydraulic fracturing (injecting fluid under high pressure into rock), commonly known as “fracking”, has included underground nuclear explosions. It has also featured a kaleidoscopic use of toxic chemicals such as hydrochloric acid, arsenic, formaldehyde, napalm, rocket fuel, diesel oil and solvents.

One consequence of fracking is wayward fracks resulting from what is essentially the application of brute force to geology. The fracking scientists and engineers have never been able to predict or control the length or direction of the induced fractures.

This allows the migration of explosive methane and poisonous frack fluids “out of zone”, invading areas many kilometres away via groundwater.

The result has been dying crops, diseased livestock, exploding homes, flammable water and a noxious parade of mutagens, carcinogens, endocrine disruptors and chemical irritants. Accompanying them have been massive truck convoys, earthquakes, and water, air and noise pollution.

These outcomes are at stark odds with what is promised at the kitchen table by fracking company representatives bearing fat chequebooks to pay landowners for leasing their land to CSG drillers. Those who object are bullied into silence by high-powered lawyers, with cash compensation in return for confidentiality agreements and gag orders.

Hush money was not an option, however, for Jessica Ernst, a qualified scientist and environmental consultant for major fossil fuel companies. When the billion-dollar oil and gas giant Encana fracked community aquifers with typically disastrous consequences near her home in Alberta, Canada, the CSG industry roused a formidable opponent.

In 2007, Ernst launched a C$33 million lawsuit for damages against Encana and its provincial government enablers in the petro-state of Alberta. Warned that the case might consume the rest of her life and every last cent, Ernst vowed, nevertheless, to press on.

Her main goal was publicly exposing how fracking “poisons water and divides communities, and captures our energy regulators and elected officials”.

Encana, its paid-for community allies and the state regulators, played dirty. They tried to discredit Ernst as mentally unstable because she had spent a year in a psychiatric hospital ward suffering from anxiety and flashbacks over her sexual abuse as a child.

They used personal threats and intimidation. One of Ernst's pet dogs was decapitated, while the counter-terrorism police accused her of being an eco-terrorist. They deployed bureaucratic resistance.

As her legal suit stretches on, Ernst continues to speak to thousands of potential fracking victims in North America and globally.

Nikiforuk's book is an extensively detailed case study of the making of an activist. Ernst did not start out as an environmental radical, already opposed to fossil fuels and the undemocratic collusion of industry and governments. It was the sour reality of fracking, and Ernst's sheer doggedness and self-sacrifice, that has turned her into a “subversive”.

Ernst now finds herself pivotally placed to expose a “dangerous and extreme technology”, whose sole aim is to extend the shelf-life of harmful fossil fuels for corporate profit.

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