Getting Fracked: BC allows extensive fracking, but at what cost?
January 25, 2012 by Ali Hackett, staff writer
Jessica Ernst can light her tap water on fire.
At least, Jessica Ernst could light her tap water on fire until she recently had the water disconnected from her home because it posed such a safety risk.
Natural gas corporation Encana began drilling near Ernst’s property on the outskirts of Rosebud in southern Alberta in the early 2000s. Prior to the drilling, Ernst had gas and oil-free well and surface water on her property, certified by Alberta Environment, which she used in her house. Although she was told over and over by government, regulators, and Encana that they would never “frack”
(a process of hydraulic fracturing) (short for “fracturing,” fracking is a process where fractures in the Earth are expanded under pressure to release natural gas) near the water supply, it wasn’t long before Ernst noticed the immense pressure of the gas in her water was forcing the taps open with a hiss. And her tap water was cloudy.
“It could easily have been mistaken for milk,” she says.
Ernst is one of many Albertans affected by fracturing for coal bed methane. Fracking into shale, a process of hydraulic fracturing, is happening all over North America, and is highly controversial. The process is complex, but essentially requires millions of litres of a solution made from water, sand, and chemicals. The solution is injected under high pressure, first vertically, then horizontally, underground into shale. The sand acts as a prop in underground fractures, which are created and expanded under the immense pressure of the fracking solution. When the solution is sucked out, small pockets of gas, which were previously unattainable, escape into the well and rise to the well-bore where the gas is captured for processing.
Ernst is currently involved in a lawsuit with Encana because of the contamination of her water, although they allege the contamination occurred naturally.
One issue with fracking is gas migration or communication. As the fracking solution is piped into the earth, it causes new fractures, which move horizontally underground.
The new fractures can communicate unintentionally with aquifers on private land, such as, allegedly, in the case of Ernst. The problem is that communication is both difficult to predict and difficult to prove.
The long-term health effects of contaminated drinking water are devastating. But the short-term consequence in Ernst’s case is she’s forced to haul her own water.
“It requires me to own a truck, which isn’t what I want, and to drive over an hour to get water,” says Ernst. “Not only has my independence been stripped, I’m forced to burn fossil fuel to get water, which I should never have had to do.”
As the drilling in her community continues, Ernst fears more families will suffer at the hands of big oil. According to Ernst, the most devastating outcome of her water troubles and subsequent lawsuit is the destruction of the community.
Sometimes energy companies make donations to local organizations, which can cause strife in the community. Some people feel the companies bring prosperity and jobs, while others, such as Ernst, believe they are destroying the environment irreparably. She believes this is a deliberate tactic.
“I think they have to divide us first,” says Ernst, “because no healthy community would allow what is happening here with fracking. It’s tragic.”
Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University in New York, has concluded that drinking water wells are being contaminated in the US as well.
“There’s a lot of debate about exactly how big an issue it is,” says Howarth, “but there’s clear evidence that drinking water wells are getting contaminated with methane at a pretty high rate if you live within a kilometre or so of a gas rig.”
Howarth was the lead researcher in a report published last year called Methane and the Greenhouse-Gas Footprint of Natural Gas from Shale Formations. Although the fracking process is complex, it’s based on fairly old technology and causes massive destruction to the environment.
“To me, the biggest problem with the water is what you do with the frack waste when it comes back up,” says Howarth. “A pretty large volume of water, something like four million litres per well on average, is contaminated with the additives, many of which are toxic.”
Not only is there contamination from additives, Howarth says naturally occurring radioactive materials and toxic metals are extracted during fracking. The toxic fracking solution has to be disposed of, either into pits, old oil wells, or deep in the earth.
“I don’t think there’s a good solution to handling the frack waste,” he says. “What industry was doing, for the most part, was disposing of the waste in municipal sewage plants, which is a crazy idea. It just goes right through the plant and contaminates the streams and rivers that are down line from it.”
The Environmental Protection Agency in the US has ruled this illegal, but Howarth says it’s still not clear exactly what they are doing with all the waste. In Ohio and Northeast BC there has been recent seismic activity that researchers say is linked to the frack-waste disposal that happens deep underground.
“They were trying to put a lot in,” says Howarth, “and they did it along a fault line, and it did indeed cause those earthquakes [in Ohio]. There’s just not enough room to take the amount of waste produced from fracking.”
There’s debate about whether or not fracking should be allowed to happen at the current scale. Environmental groups all over the world are calling for a moratorium on fracking. France banned it outright last year, while Quebec has imposed a partial moratorium until more research is done.
Howarth agrees, and says the oil and gas companies are moving in on the gas before they have developed safe disposal methods.
“I personally don’t think the technology should be allowed,” he says, “until it’s proven to be safer than has so far been demonstrated.”
The problem with regulation
It appears that consistent regulation of resource extraction is nonexistent. Besides the fact that resources are managed individually by province, there are discrepancies among experts.
Tark Hamilton, a geology instructor at Camosun College, used to work for the Geological Survey of Canada, a federal organization whose funds he says have been severely diminished. Hamilton says that prior to funding cuts, they were doing cutting-edge research that benefited Canadians.
“It was just the facts, because nobody was paying me any more to come up with a particular answer,” says Hamilton. “I just wrote down the data and told it how it was, for public information. If you force the guys who stand to profit to pay for [research], they’ll just pay for rubber stamps.”
With minimal government research there’s little to encourage corporations to be on the cutting edge of environmental technology.
Alan Boras, a spokesperson for Encana, says they operate under the legislation in the area of operations.
“Regulation is in the purview of the provincial government,” he says. “We operate as required by the BC Oil and Gas Commission.”
The consequence is the government often relies on outdated or industry-funded research to make decisions about resources and the environment, rather than forward-thinking, unbiased, scientific data.
“We’re not looking at the big picture, or into the future,” says Hamilton. “We need replacement technologies. We’ve got environmental wars to fight; we need water for other things, we need agriculture. We don’t need contaminated aquifers. Yeah there’s some fast profit here, but the tax on it is so little and the net long-term gains so small, why are we bothering?”
The provincial government in BC has recently created a website, fracfocus.ca, that will make public what chemicals are used in fracking operations.
George Heyman, the executive director of the Sierra Club of BC, says it’s a good first step but there are still issues that need to be addressed. For example, chemicals will be reported, but if there isn’t any safety data sheets attached it will be up to the citizens to put in the time and expense of doing the research.
Heyman maintains that it would be more appropriate for government to make information accessible as to what the associated health impacts of listed chemicals are.
“The companies are being asked to self-report,” says Heyman. “We’re not sure what mechanisms will be in place to ensure that the reporting is accurate.”
Encana, however, says that fracking is a safe operation.
“We’re working in the public interest on behalf of the provincial government, in a respectful manner, with the goals they’ve outlined,” says Boras. “BC has done a very good job of developing its natural-gas industry.”
While it’s true that there aren’t often acute injuries to workers or citizens, the cumulative effects of resource extraction are often overlooked.
Another issue with regulation is pricing. The government charges royalties for both the right to extract the gas, and on the gas itself, which, technically, is a publicly owned resource. According to Heyman, the cost of the royalties has been progressively lowered, possibly due to a battle between BC and Alberta to be more attractive to investors.
“They’re pursuing what I call a liquidation strategy,” says Heyman. “They hope to achieve more money overall in a year by lowering the royalty price, but encouraging companies to take out a greater amount [of gas]. I question whether that’s a sensible practice for a non-renewable resource.”
Natural gas: Neither green nor clean
Natural gas is often touted as a clean or transitional energy source. The truth is, it does burn cleaner than carbon dioxide or coal, and that’s how energy companies market natural gas.
“People see a lot of advertising about how this is a clean fuel, but that’s not true at all,” says Howarth.
The issue is the fracking process. Obtaining unconventional gas reserves requires immense amounts of non-renewable energy, which essentially makes it one of the dirtiest fossil fuels in terms of greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions.
“Our conclusion is that as we get more and more of our gas from shale using hydraulic fracturing, we’re largely replacing conventional gas, which came from dome formations. That increases the GHG emissions on average by about 50 percent,” says Howarth, “without giving us a new net source of energy.”
When you include the influence of methane, particularly looking over the time period of a few decades, the GHG footprint of shale gas in the US is worse than that of conventional natural gas, and also worse than that of either coal or oil.
Top dollar is the bottom line
Northeast BC has the biggest fracking operations in the world, and is technically part of the same petroleum-producing sedimentary basin as the tar sands. The federal Conservative government, the BC Liberals, and the provincial government in Alberta consistently use job creation and the economy as supporting arguments for fracking and other oil, gas, and mining exploration.
Caleb Behn, a University of Victoria law student and member of the West Moberly First Nations (Dunne-Za) on his mother’s side, and the Fort Nelson First Nation (Eh Cho Dene) on his father’s side, says jobs can’t be the bottom line.
Behn worked for both the West Moberly First Nations and the Saulteaux Firs First Nation in Northeast BC as they dealt with land sales and consultation processes regarding land use planning. He’s seen firsthand the destruction of the Northern landscape and wildlife habitats.
“We’re busy fighting to maintain what we see as our unique worldview, but the attack comes from the constant pace of development,” says Behn. “Anything that touches the land impacts First Nations, at some level. It has to. The basis of our worldview and culture is predicated upon the land.”
According to the BC Oil and Gas Commission, the northeast of BC produces virtually all the oil and gas in the province.
“Where I’m from, a job in the oil and gas industry comes with an environmental impact that won’t be felt in Vancouver or Victoria,” says Behn. “It will most likely be felt in Northeast British Columbia, far from the political base, far from a dense population with voting power.”
There are people making a lot of money in northeastern BC, and their support for the industry is unshakeable. Behn attributes this partially to the high number of people from other parts of Canada that go work in the oil patch each winter, and the fact that the northern communities are so remote.
Fort Nelson, and the surrounding Treaty 8 First Nation territory, is a place most southerners can’t fathom. It’s over 2,000 kilometres from Vancouver, or about a 20-hour drive. The closest city to Fort Nelson is five hours away and there’s nothing but gas stations in between. The border with the Northwest Territories is closer.
Temperatures are often so cold that parking lots are full of multiple-ton work trucks with their engines running, sometimes for hours, while people eat, drink, and shop.
Behn feels that, because the majority of people in BC are unaware of what it’s like to be directly impacted by the energy industry, the public isn’t able to fully recognize the scope of the situation.
But Boras says that the socio-economic components of natural gas activities are important and shouldn’t be overlooked.
“At the end of the day, development improves the living conditions of citizens and the overall community,” he says.
Most politicians don’t feel pressure from the major voting centers in metro Vancouver to take a stance against the environmental impacts of oil and gas exploration, and instead focus on the amount of revenue it brings the province.
“I find the rhetoric around jobs unnecessarily myopic,” says Behn, “And, much like a lot of other things in the oil and gas industry, simplified intentionally to ensure divisive perspectives in the community.”
Meanwhile, Boras says Encana works hard to unite communities where the corporation develops natural gas.
“Our activities, and all they entail… investment, jobs, taxes… are all important and fundamental,” he says. “Economic activity is an important part of our mandate and jobs are what people are interested in.”