EDMONTON - Alberta New Democrats say newly released documents show fracking has become an unregulated free-for-all in the province with no regard for the impact on groundwater or on people's health.
NDP Leader Brian Mason presented information Tuesday provided under freedom-of-information laws that shows the number of hydraulic fracturing licences granted by the province soared 647 per cent last year to 1,516.
Mason said the amount of water allocated and used for fracking has increased even faster.
"Most Albertans don't realize that fracking in Alberta is almost completely unregulated," he told a legislature news conference.
"And it is increasing on a dramatic scale without any understanding of what the potential consequences will be."
He said the water loss alone is sobering, with more than 17 million cubic metres used in 2013.
"This is an enormous amount of groundwater. It's pumped into the ground, it's polluted by chemicals and it's never seen again."
Fracking blasts pressurized water and chemicals into underlying rocks to release trapped natural gas and oil.
It has changed the game on North American resource extraction in the last decade — fuelling an oil and gas boom in North Dakota and delivering a 15 per cent overall production increase south of the border, according to Alberta government data.
It has also resulted in a backlash from environmentalists and from homeowners who live near fracking sites. Their main concern is polluted groundwater and aquifers.
In Lethbridge, homeowners and city council are fighting an application by Calgary-based Goldenkey Oil to drill three wells using vertical hydraulic fracturing within city limits and within one kilometre of where people live.
The legislature members for Lethbridge — Progressive Conservatives Bridget Pastoor and Greg Weadick — have told residents they are making sure concerns are heard. Mason said they two need to go farther and actively fight the development.
"They're mealy-mouthed hedging on the whole question."
Fracking has brought with it controversy in other provinces. Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia and Quebec are re-evaluating its benefits versus the consequences of environmental damage.
Mason said it's too late for a moratorium on fracking in Alberta.
"The horse is kind of out of the barn. It's a mainstream activity now."
He suggested Premier Alison Redford's government should undertake an independent scientific review of hydraulic fracturing and use independent groundwater monitoring before further projects get approved.
Environment Minister Robin Campbell disagreed with Mason. He said in a news release that "Alberta has strict regulations that apply to all oil and gas development regardless of the technology being used."
Campbell also said concerns of environmental damage have not been borne out.
"To date, there has not been a documented case of hydraulic fracturing fluids contaminating a domestic water well in Alberta. For anybody to claim that the water supply is at risk is completely false," said Campbell.
"All water licence applications are carefully reviewed to ensure no significant impacts to our environment or other water users."