In Alberta over the last 40 years, fracking has not produced a single case of water contamination
By Troy Media
Just a few years ago, Canada’s natural gas industry enjoyed a period of relative calm. The sector operated in the shadow of the Alberta oil sands, largely free of criticism and public attention.
Then the shale gas boom occurred.
The quest to draw natural gas from Canadian shale formations has changed much in recent years. Provinces with longstanding oil and gas traditions, such as British Columbia and Alberta, find themselves sitting atop massive new gas reserves.
Potential riches . . . environmental fears
And even provinces with little oil and gas experience – such as New Brunswick – are eyeing shale formations that could fill government coffers with much-needed royalty cash.
Potential riches, however, are accompanied by environmental fears. From B.C. to the East Coast, there is real concern that provincial governments – particularly those with scant oil and gas experience – are struggling to understand how to regulate the technologically advanced shale gas sector.
The problem, says University of Calgary professor Bob Page, is the complicated nature of shale gas development.
Conventional natural gas production is relatively straightforward: Tap a large gas reservoir and draw the contents to the surface.
Unconventional shale gas, meanwhile, involves drawing gas from brittle sedimentary rock. The gas lies trapped within the shale, which must be broken apart for the gas to escape. That is often achieved through the use of hydraulic fracturing (or fracking). The technique involves pumping millions of litres of fresh water – often mixed with sand and chemicals – underground. Under immense pressure, the solution cracks apart the shale, allowing gas to flow to the surface.
Fracking has raised a host of environmental concerns, most notably around potential water contamination. Many rural residents fear fracking fluid could leach into their drinking water.
In the U.S., fracking fluid has been shown to contain toxins such as benzene and lead. Also present in some fracking fluid is 2-butoxyethanol, which is easily absorbed by humans and can destroy red blood cells and cause spleen, liver and bone marrow damage. In Wyoming, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has discovered 2-butoxyethanol in drinking water wells, although no link to fracking has been established.
Page asserts the shale gas industry is more time consuming for provinces to regulate than conventional gas. And then there’s the need for more public outreach to address critics’ concerns.
“It’s a much more complicated issue,” says Page, who works at the University of Calgary’s Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy. “There’s a much higher level of public interest and concern on shale gas.”
Because provinces regulate natural gas production, there are varying degrees of development across the country, Page says. In Quebec, fracking is limited to research for an environmental study. Meanwhile, in Alberta and B.C., the shale gas sector is continuing to grow and develop.
In the Maritime Provinces, governments are intrigued by the royalties that could flow from shale gas production. Companies from as far away as Texas are seeking onshore riches in the Maritime region. That search, however, has sparked an outpouring of public concern, including protests.
Maritime governments have responded by ensuring environmental protection standards are maintained. In Nova Scotia, for example, hydraulic fracturing is under review.
Bradley Walters, a professor of geography and environmental studies at Mount Allison University, says the Maritime Provinces have been caught flat-footed by the eastern spread of the U.S. shale gas boom.
The fracking issue is of particular concern for Walters, who says the environmental and health effects have not been sufficiently studied. In particular, he worries about the chemicals used in fracking fluid, and their ability to enter the water supply.
Walters says he is also distressed by the hodge-podge legislation being used to regulate the developing Maritime shale gas industry. In New Brunswick, he says, the oil and gas industry is regulated by 11 legislative acts spanning five departments.
“I feel that an outright moratorium or ban is the only responsible thing to do,” says the Sackville, N.B.-based academic. “Our governments are simply in no position in terms of knowledge, capacity or political will to effectively regulate this industry.
“The governments here seem willing to let industry self-regulate. I find that prospect very worrisome.”
But the industry has been proactive. In September, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) introduced guiding principles for hydraulic fracturing, and followed up in January with new operating practices. These practices obligate CAPP members to ensure sound wellbore construction, seek fresh water alternatives, recycle where feasible, report water use voluntarily, disclose fracturing fluid, and pursue technical advancement and collaboration.
President David Collyer stated: “Applying these new operating practices will contribute to improving our environmental performance and transparency over time, both of which contribute to stronger understanding of industry activity and better relationships with the public, stakeholders and government.”
In an interview, Kerry Guy, manager of Natural Gas Advocacy at CAPP, acknowledges that natural gas regulations are in a constant “state of evolution.”
Governments are moving, too. In June 2011, New Brunswick’s Progressive Conservative government announced new rules aimed at strengthening public confidence in the fledgling sector. Among the new regulations: oil and gas companies must pay for independent baseline well water testing; disclose all the fluids and chemicals used in the fracking process; and put up a security bond to protect property owners in the event of an industrial accident.
And in February 2012, Alberta’s Energy Resources Conservation Board announced it will roll out new rules by the end of this year that will require companies to disclose ingredients in fracking fluids. Alberta has committed to bringing its regulations in alignment with Saskatchewan and B.C., a board spokesman said.
Regulatory criticism is not confined to the eastern provinces.
In September 2011, a report from the Pembina Institute raised questions about B.C. shale gas regulations, specifically those governing water resources. The report cited “concerns about the adequacy, independence and comprehensiveness” of the current regulations.
Specifically, the report warned that B.C. officials lack a full understanding of how much water is consumed by the shale gas industry. According to the report, up to 90 million litres of water are required for some gas wells in northeast B.C.
“In many cases, B.C.’s approaches to resource management and environmental protection are not fully equipped to deal with the new pressures introduced by the anticipated pace of shale gas development,” stated the report.
But he says western Canada’s regulations are sound and based on half a century of experience. So they can serve as a guide for inexperienced provinces entering the sector, he says.
Alberta’s record speaks for itself
CAPP’s Guy points to Alberta where some 167,000 hydraulic fracturing procedures have taken place over the past 40 years.
Over that time, he says, fracking has not produced a single case of water contamination.
“Zero for 167,000 is pretty good,” says Guy, whose organization represents 90 per cent of Canada’s oil and gas developers.
“The regulatory regimes of western Canada are world-class regimes. You’d be hard pressed to find any that are more robust. We think those are excellent models for (other provinces) to use.”
New York Times columnist David Brooks echoed Guy’s position in a recent op-ed piece. In it, Brooks quoted from a 178-page study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published in June 2011: “With 20,000 shale wells drilled in the last 10 years, the environmental record of shale-gas development is for the most part a good one.”
“In other words,” said Brooks, “the inherent risks can be managed if there is a reasonable regulatory regime, and if the general public has a balanced and realistic sense of the costs and benefits.”
Category: Oil & Gas