Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in Canada is taking its controversial operation to new levels with reports surfacing of the largest fracking job ever undertaken having occurred in northern British Columbia in 2010, using 259 million gallons of water.
The Apache Corp. performed a fracking job deep in B.C.’s forest which required the staggering amount of water along with 50,000 tons of sand to frack 16 gas wells side by side. At the time, Apache bragged it was “nearly four times larger than any project of its nature in North America,” according to ProPublica.
As with all records, it was meant to be broken. By year’s end, Apache partnered with Encana, the second largest gas-driller in North America, to top it by half at a nearby site. Slowly emerging from the new fracking boom in western Canada is a growing concern over drinking water contamination, with one Alberta resident claiming communities in the region are a “test tube” for the hydraulic fracturing industry.
While a furious debate rages in the U.S. over the fracking industry’s waste and contamination of natural resources, its northern neighbor’s new gas drilling boom is getting a deserved second look, thanks in part to recently-surfaced governmental memos and those claims of water contamination.
Many of the arguments about fracking in the two North American countries are centered on similar themes: the economic boom associated with fracking versus fracking’s associated sidekicks, air pollution and an immense waste and contamination of fresh water resources.
North American shale gas basins.
Governments in Canada’s two western provinces have embraced the fracking boom with open arms as they attempt to lure the industry’s associated investment, in the form of financial incentives and loosening restrictions. As a result, the region is seeing some of the most extraordinary fracking operations anywhere.
“There definitely is concern on the part of people living in northeast B.C. on the scale of developments, which are quite significant already and are only in their infancy,” Ben Parfitt, an analyst at Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a research institute promoting environmental sustainability, told ProPublica. “We are seeing some of the largest fracking operations anywhere on earth.”
An internal memo was sent last March by Canada’s deputy minister of the environment, addressed to Environment Minister Peter Kent, which warned of needed assessments of risks linked to fracking. The memo was obtained by an Ottawa newspaper and said water use and contamination were at the top of a list of environmental worries including greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution and the involvement of unknown toxic chemicals, all issues facing communities in the U.S.
While Kent ordered two studies looking into the environmental and safety issues of fracking, the environment ministry, in a written response to ProPublica, said, “Our Government believes shale gas is an important strategic resource that could provide numerous economic benefits to Canada.” It added gas is an essential element to a clean energy future and that “a healthy environment and a strong economy go hand in hand.”
Fracking industry estimates state shale gas reserves in northern British Columbia hold at least 200 trillion cubic feet of gas. Encana began fracking in BC in the late 1990s to begin the current gas exploration boom. It moved over to Alberta in the early 2000s and began using nitrogen, instead of water, to frack shallow coal seams, or what are commonly called coalbed methane.
Coalbed methane fracking generally uses less fluid than shale fracking. However, it occurs very close to drinking water supplies and as a result, Encana and other operators have drilled frack wells directly into aquifers, then injecting fracking fluids into groundwater supplies suitable for drinking.
The Barnett and Marcellus shale plays in the U.S. are opportunistic for fracking because of their close proximity to markets and existing infrastructure. Not so for northwest Canada. Luring the fracking companies to the harsh far north required the Canadian government to come up with incentives.
Aerial view of the Stuart oil-shale development project near Gladstone, Australia
Regional regulators in both western provinces have passed rules which allow more intensive drilling, and as a result, fracking companies have geared up their operations there, resulting in a series of record-breaking frack jobs.
For instance, Alberta allows frackers to pack wells close together and release gas more efficiently by pumping more water from shallow coal seams. Although British Columbia distributed detailed regulations in 2010 limiting where and when frack companies can drill, and also set rigid environmental standards, it gave the Oil and Gas Commission authority for exempting gas drillers from virtually all of the regulations.
An inquiry from ProPublica to the commission was referred to its parent agency, BC Ministry of Energy and Mines. The Ministry replied in written responses that new regulations in place adequately address any environment concerns over fracking in the the province and that it will continue to review and revise the provisions as necessary.
The easing of government regulations has led environmental advocates in the two western provinces to question the preparedness of officials in their ability to cope with unchecked development, contamination and water use.
Bob Simpson, a member of B.C.’s legislative assembly and an outspoken critic of fracking, told ProPublica, “We just don't have a clue how big this issue is from a public policy perspective. We really don’t know what we’re doing.” The fact most of the fracking is occurring in a deeply isolated section of the country, with a low population density and far from oversight, only compounds the problem.
Although the Canadian government does not track the general public complaints, therefore making hard numbers hard to come by, some community members in the fracking region are pointing out strange events which have been occurring with a natural resource.
Alberta resident Jessica Ernst, a longtime environmental consultant for the oil and gas industry, became a victim of such strange events starting in 2005, when she noticed faucets began to whistle, the toilet began to fizz, and black particles clogged her water filters. She then began experiencing rashes, and wondered if there was a connection to nearby coalbed methane drilling being conducted by Encana, just outside Rosebud, located northeast of Calgary.
Her water well, originally drilled in 1986, showed no methane. However, the strange new occurrences led her to request Alberta Environment and Water, responsible for groundwater management, test her well. The new test results showed high levels of methane, a hydrocarbon called F2 and two other chemicals.
“The community was used as a test tube,” Ernst said, ProPublica reports. “I was used as a test tube.”
Despite at least six gas wells within a mile of the Ernst well, and many more within two miles of the her well site (see complaint review below), the Alberta Research Council, a government research agency, concluded in its 2007 complaint review it was unlikely fracking had impacted her water, stating
energy projects in the area most likely have not adversely affected Ms. Ernst’s private water supply well.
As a result, Ernst has sued Encana, Alberta Environment and Water, and the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board (the gas drilling regulator) over allegations that Encana’s drilling operations were negligent and the governmental agencies were complicit in Encana’s contamination by failing to enforce regulations.
The lawsuit asks for $33 million Canadian in damages, along with a return of wrongful profits. Ernst states she will not settle on terms involving a confidentiality agreement, as others have previously done.
In December 2010, British Columbia’s auditor general issued a report (pdf) focused on the province’s groundwater and noted
The provincial government is not effectively ensuring the sustainability of British Columbia’s groundwater resources.
Adding fuel to the fire over the fracking debate is recently increasing geological trend in the industry called “communication” -- incidents where a fracture moves through the ground, connecting two gas wells. British Columbia’s Oil and Gas Commission has said these events pose no contamination risk.
Fracking opponents, however, say these communication events prove drillers lack full comprehension of ramifications when wells are fracked near one another, thereby actually increasing contamination risks.
Communication events have occurred in the U.S. as well as Canada. Regulators in Michigan, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Texas have all reported such events.
ProPublica notes energy companies in British Columbia have reported 25 cases of communication since 2009. One of the known hazards of communication is the possibility of a well operator losing control of a well when communication’s resulting jump in well pressure occurs, leading to a well blowout.
The uprising against fracking in Canada has been met with a joint effort between the industry and western Canada’s provincial governments. Late in 2010, the governments of Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan agreed to a Memorandum of Understanding - calling themselves the New West Partnership - for a plan of sharing information and creating standards for fracking and water use. Just one non-governmental entity was invited for involvement in the project, ProPublica notes: the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
The memo, leaked in August, said the three provinces and the fracking industry would work together in creating “key messages” on hydraulic fracturing in order to convince the public fracking was safe, stating
The project will help to demonstrate that shale gas extraction is viable, safe and environmentally sustainable.
Critics note the memo is proof of a sheltered relationship (pdf) between the fracking industry and provincial governments, but Bart Johnson, a spokesman for Alberta’s Energy Minister defended government’s involvement with industry groups.
“Oil and gas is huge in Alberta. It fuels our economy. Indeed it fuels the economy of Canada,” Johnson said to ProPublica. “Any suggestion that we shouldn’t meet with that industry is ridiculous.”