This is a long read. Because the current 'debate' leaves out so much.
We need to talk: Recent Canadian studies gloss over or miss entirely four key realities about fracking. Drill photo via Shutterstock.
A number of academic papers of varying quality have contributed to the nation's growing debate about hydraulic fracturing, a form of brute force mining for unconventional hydrocarbons.
The federally funded Council of Canadian Academies, for example, recommended a go-slow approach given the absence of good science on the impacts of hydraulic fracturing as well the lack of effective groundwater monitoring for hydrocarbons in Western Canada.
A major paper by University of Waterloo professor Maurice Dusseault then suggested that leaky wellbores, an old and insidious industry liability, is the major issue at hand, and not hydraulic fracturing.
Dusseault's thorough paper concluded that a substantial tweaking of the rules and regulations could fix a chronic problem: the significant leakage of methane from producing and inactive wells into groundwater and the atmosphere.
Another fracking paper by the University of New Brunswick assumes that fracking imposes no threat to groundwater as long as "best practices" are followed.
The Hydraulic Fracturing Review in Nova Scotia seems to think that good regulations can manage the impacts of this sprawling and intensive mining technology on people, water and the land.
All of these papers share a critical disconnect from the real world, where best practices are ignored; captive regulators turn a blind eye to rule breakers; and government knowingly abuses public water resources with impunity.
Nor have any of these papers seriously reflected the experience of real families and communities impacted by the industrialization and complexity of hydraulic fracturing. (The sprawling industry requires more land, water and energy and yet produces less energy over time than conventional resources. It is the energy equivalent of ocean-bottom trawling.)
Even in Tory-blue Alberta, landowners pointedly refer to fracking operations for shale oil north of Cochrane as "industrial terrorism" due to air pollution, truck traffic and property devaluation of 26 per cent.
So here's what missing: the academic reports aren't looking at the cost of cleaning up polluted groundwater; they don't acknowledge the fact of regulatory capture; they've omitted key data about the complexity of fracturing; and they make little mention about the cruel world of gas migration. Let's take these realities in order:
1. How do you fix polluted groundwater or, even worse, a fracked aquifer?
Most of the papers gloss over the importance of groundwater and the costly problem of cleaning up damaged aquifers. In fact more than 30 per cent of Canadians -- nine million citizens -- depend on groundwater for their drinking supply.
Groundwater is a precious, finite and irreplaceable resource. About one-third of the globe's freshwater lies underground. There it may travel for as long as thousands of years before flowing into rivers, lakes, streams and oceans. Due to chronic over-pumping, chemical contamination and climate change, groundwater has become one of the world's most threatened resources.
Here's what Environment Canada (citing the excellent work of renowned hydrologist John Cherry) now has to say about groundwater pollution: Chemical contamination "can render groundwater unsuitable for use." The overall extent of the problem across Canada remains unknown due to poor mapping and non-existent monitoring. There have been dramatic cases of groundwater pollution involving solvents, nitrates, de-icing salt, pesticides and methane. "In many cases, contamination is recognized only after groundwater users have been exposed to potential health risks. The cost of cleaning up contaminated water supplies is usually extremely high," adds Environment Canada.
And the problem is getting worse due to population growth and "the large and growing number of toxic compounds used in industry and agriculture." The federal government warns that "more contaminated aquifers will be discovered, new contaminants will be identified, and more contaminated groundwater will be discharged into wetlands, streams and lakes."
Once an aquifer is contaminated, it may be unusable for weeks, decades, centuries or 10,000 years depending on the contaminant. (Some frack jobs in Alberta consist entirely of diesel fuel.)
Moreover groundwater contamination is an industrial curse that keeps on going. "Several studies have documented the migration of contaminants from disposal or spill sites to nearby lakes and rivers as this groundwater passes through the hydrologic cycle, but the processes are not as yet well understood." As a consequence Environment Canada says that "preventing contamination in the first place is by far the most practical solution to the problem." Any progress to date has been "hampered by a serious shortage of groundwater experts and a general lack of knowledge about how groundwater behaves."
Despite documented cases of groundwater contamination throughout the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin, no energy regulator has yet constructed a groundwater monitoring system to watch how oil and gas activity is changing the quality of groundwater over time. Not one, says John Cherry, the nation's top hydrologist.
Despite strong recommendations by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment more than a decade ago that governments do baseline studies on groundwater prior to allowing unconventional hydrocarbon production, Alberta, B.C. and Saskatchewan knowingly refused to link science to energy policy.
Given that governments dependent on hydrocarbon revenue have chosen to neglect groundwater for decades, why would the governments of New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Yukon and Nova Scotia fare any better?
Hydrologist John Cherry puts it this way: "Canadians are international delinquents when it comes to monitoring surface water and clueless when it comes to monitoring groundwater."
2. How do you prevent regulatory capture?
All the academic papers assume energy regulators will do a grand job, but to date none have. Most are not only captured by industry representatives, but perform incompetently.
The Alberta Energy Regulator is one hundred per cent funded by industry levies. Gerard Protti, a former energy lobbyist and Encana executive, now directs this board. How responsible is it that a former Encana vice president, a firm that pioneered oilsands steam projects and hydraulic fracturing (and fracking controversies in Colorado, Michigan, Texas, Wyoming and Alberta) now oversees the regulation of hydraulic fracturing and oil sands in Alberta?
Because oil and gas advertising largely dominate Alberta's media outlets, the local press rarely mentions this blatant conflict of interest. It is perhaps appropriate that recent changes to energy regulation in Alberta also removed the words "public interest" from the board's mandate.
Now the most conservative landowners in North America routinely describe the board as conflicted, dysfunctional and unresponsive.
A former lobbyist from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers also set up B.C.'s Oil and Gas Commission. It, too, is also entirely funded by industry. In British Columbia's Peace River Country landowners and First Nations refer to the OGC as "a facilitator."
Nevertheless, Canadian academic papers suggest that Eastern Canada should "follow the industry model in Alberta" and that "it is a relatively straightforward task to establish good monitoring and regulatory practices." But when dealing with Big Oil nothing could be further from the truth.
Also Alberta's rules and their enforcement remain substandard. The regulator, for example, requires a risk assessment when a company does a fracture job within 100 metres of an aquifer. That's not best practice and not even prudent practice. University of Durham researcher Richard Davies, a world expert on the subject (his studies were not cited in the CCA report), recommends a minimum 600 metre buffer "to prevent unintentional penetration of shallow rock strata."
The province has also failed to map groundwater in a timely fashion. It has no competent methane investigation program, and it has failed to set up anything close to a responsible groundwater monitoring regime in either the oilsands or conventional gas fields. The same board now oversees water permits to the industry -- another conflict of interest -- and has consistently failed to regulate the growth of tailing pond wastewaters in the oilsands, a $20-billion liability for taxpayers. If that's a good model of accountability, then eastern Canadians can expect little mercy for their water resources.
Captured energy regulators are the norm on the continent. In 2010 a public watchdog described the Railroad Commission of Texas, arguably the most important oil and gas regulator in the United States, as conflicted and reactive. Governed by three statewide elected commissioners whose campaigns are increasingly funded by oil and gas companies, the report fretted about TRC's perceived bias. Moreover the TRC has been dogged by "inadequate enforcement efforts." In 2012 TRC performed 118,000 inspections and found 55,000 violations. Incredibly, the agency issued only 217 penalties worth a paltry $1.9 million in fines to oil and gas operators.
When hydraulic fracturing operations caused earthquakes in both the Eagle Ford and Barnett Shale, the TRC pretended there was no connection with oil and gas activity. Glaring scientific evidence and the wrath of landowners finally forced them to hire a seismologist in 2014. Presented with uncomfortable evidence that methane from the Barnett Shale was migrating and contaminating aquifers, the commission ignored the evidence. It said the methane was naturally occurring.
In such a debased regulatory environment best practices mean nothing. A recent U.S. study looked at how 24 fracking companies scored against "32 indicators related to management of toxic chemicals, water and waste, air emissions, community impacts, and governance." The companies included Encana, Talisman, Devon, Conoco Philips, Exxon and Apache. None passed. The highest grade was 14. The majority of the companies scored less than 10 out of 32.
That would come as no surprise to the Fort Nelson First Nation, which owns most of the land being fracked in northern B.C.
At a recent Munk Centre Program on Water Issues conference on hydraulic fracturing, Rod Visser, who works for the nation, outlined how companies repeatedly showed little understanding for First Nation's concerns about water, culture, land or treaty rights.
Encana, for example, recently fought for a major water withdrawal (3 million cubic metres a year) from the Fort Nelson River against the wishes of the local community.
"They were the most difficult corporate group to deal with bar none," said Visser.
Last April the Fort Nelson First Nation issued an LNG declaration that honestly reveals the difficult state of affairs in fracking country:
"For over five years now, we have been trying to work out a relationship with B.C. and have had little to no success; we have had a particularly difficult time with the Oil and Gas Commission."
3. How do you control a non-linear process?
The Canadian academic papers generally assume that leaky wellbores are more likely the cause of extensive groundwater contamination in shale gas regions than pathways created by hydraulic fracturing. But no one has done the research yet.
In reality the evidence suggests that there are two serious engineering problems: uncontrolled well leakage due to industry and regulatory inaction and the uncontrolled creation of new pathways between man-made and natural fractures leading to methane seepage to the surface.
Shattering rock under stress with high-pressured fluids is not an exact science. Fractures frequently zip out of the target zone into other formations where they can connect to existing faults and natural fractures. Industry experts define the process as "non-linear" and often describe it as unpredictable. In 2005 the Oilfield Review noted that "[g]eologic discontinuities such as fractures and faults can dominate fracture geometry in a way that makes predicting hydraulic fracture behavior difficult." The same paper added, "All hydraulic fracture models fail to predict fracture behavior precisely, and in many cases, models fail completely, largely because of incorrect information and assumptions used in the models." A 2012 paper by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists emphasized these truths by concluding the process of hydraulic fracturing doesn't make neat definable cracks in rock but rather produces "a complex, damaged fracture network."
In the United States, shale formation fractures have travelled 588 metres in height. In offshore wells, fractures have extended 1106 metres. The fracturing of shallow coal seams (an issue these academic papers avoid with a peculiar blindness) has resulted in uncontrolled fractures into fresh groundwater in New Mexico, Alabama, Colorado and Alberta.
Fracking out-of-zone is a big issue for industry and one that the Canadian academic studies inexplicably ignore. In the Bakken formation in North Dakota the problem is particularly acute. There "the propagation of hydraulic fracturing outside the thin production zone and into the adjacent carbonate aquifers may result in increasing water co-production and reduction in well profitability." Instances of "unexpected production of significant amounts of water" following frack jobs are even more common in the Canadian part of the Bakken.
In Norway one offshore frack job travelled 900 metres through Cenozoic rock and came to the surface.
Throughout North America the oil and gas industry routinely fractures into other wellbores. In simple terms the growing number of horizontal, multi-stage hydraulic fracture wells are now colliding with existing (and leaky) infrastructure on the landscape and pose a high risk to groundwater. In the last couple of years there have been 30 "frack hits" or "communication events" in B.C. and more than 20 reported frack hits in Alberta. Some frack hits travelled 2400 metres through pre-existing fractures.
In most cases the incidents spewed thousands of gallons of frack fluids and water onto the surface. When industry fractures into other wellbores and breaks cement seals, it is likely contaminating groundwater and breaching into local water wells too.
Energy/Wire recently reported that nearly 30 per cent of the wellbores in the Montney formation that are less than 500 metres apart now experience fracking hits. The U.S. oil company Denbury Resources recently reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "as well density increases, it becomes increasingly probable that wells will communicate either through previously created fractures or through adjacent wellbores and then into previously created fractures."
Next comes several damning cases involving the injection of hazardous fluids (including steam, acids and dirty water) into the ground. The evidence shows that they have a bad habit of moving along natural fractures and in unexpected ways. In northern Alberta pressurized steam injections to melt bitumen have repeatedly connected to fractures or old wells and erupted to surface. In the Cold Lake region they have also contaminated groundwater and mobilized arsenic.
In Edmonton the oil and gas industry disposes of acid gas collected from the Redwater oilfield by blasting it, much like hydraulic fracturing fluid, deep into the ground. But this toxic gas is on the move: "After 13 years of injection, [carbon dioxide] has been detected at an offset producing well at 3,625 m distance in the same gas pool." In southern Alberta at the Retlaw-Mannville gas pool, sour gas travelled over two kilometres from an injection well to a gas producing well in less than nine months. A federal report noted: "Several acid gas injection operations in Alberta have experienced unique reservoir behavior such as pressuring or acid gas breakthrough at offsetting wells." And an acid injection site in Edson, Alberta is likely involved in the widespread contamination of drinking water wells with sulfolane, a chemical used to scrub down sour gas.
At 62 facilities in Florida, three gigatons of wastewater injected into deep formations 1,000 metres below the surface was supposed to stay put. It didn't: the dirty water migrated and contaminated drinking water.
None of this critical scientific data on the hazards of fluid and gas migration were addressed in any of the Canadian academic studies.
4. What about shallow formations and the case of Jessica Ernst?
All of the academic reports assume that industry only fracks deep shales, 2,000 metres or more below the ground. Most scientists suspect the fracking fluids should stay there and not affect groundwater. And they may be right.
But industry has fractured shallow formations and lots of intermediate formations. And in some places it is fracking deep formations below heavily fracked intermediate zones or previously fracked shallow zones. The CCA report, for example, avoided this uncomfortable reality: industry is now fracturing shallow shales and coal formations with high pressures and massive fluid volumes with vertical wells.
Quebec's Utica formation consists of shallow- to medium-depth shale gas and experimental test wells are already leaking methane. In Manitoba the government may allow industry to frack shales as shallow as 100 metres. In Saskatchewan industry wants to target "shallow, biogenic tight-shale" at depths of 300 to 700 metres. And in Nova Scotia the industry has fracked coal seams that are only 540 metres deep.
In Alberta industry has already carpet-bombed a coal formation (the Horseshoe Canyon) with 16,000 wells. The formation is 400 metres deep and often crops to the surface and contains drinking water. Manitoba researcher Dennis LeNeveu has noted that "fractures from CBM, typically less than 20 m in length, can penetrate through the protective shale layers into the aquifers. Induced fractures from horizontal wells can be over 100 m. The injection of fracturing fluids generates pressure waves that can open existing fractures in rock and damage well cement liners beyond the extent of the injected fluids." Since the government allowed this science experiment, extensive contamination of groundwater wells with methane and nitrogen (a fracking ingredient) has been found.
The Jessica Ernst case remains the grand elephant in the room. The veteran oil patch consultant has documented extensive groundwater contamination and can even set her own well water on fire. Her case, the subject of a major lawsuit, presents more evidence that industry knowingly fractured coal seams about 100 metres in depth nearly a decade ago in rural central Alberta. In fact public data shows the industry fractured coal seams with 62 gas wells less than 200 metres below the surface and 11 wells less than 175 metres and another 133 wells above the so-called Baseline of Groundwater Protection at Rosebud, Alberta alone.
Gas wells in other Alberta communities have also been fracked above the base of groundwater protection. As a result, contaminants found in drinking water supplies in central Alberta included methane, ethane, butane, hydrogen sulfide, hexavalent chromium, arsenic and man-made petroleum distillates such as diesel and kerosene.
And how did regulators respond? They withheld data or told landowners that the contamination was natural. If Ernst lived in a jurisdiction with model regulations, best practices and judicious regulators, why would she have to exhaust her life savings and spend seven years suing the responsible authorities to make them accountable for their actions? And why have the academics ignored this case along with the damning public evidence on fracturing of shallow coal beds?
The answer is simple: it provides uncomfortable evidence that hydraulic fracturing imposes real risks to groundwater, property values, land integrity and political accountability.
So what's missing from the academic debate is really the gritty truth. In the real world regulators fail to regulate. In the base world governments fail to protect groundwater. In the human realm accidents happen. In the corporate world best practices get talked not walked. And in the messy political world, the globe's most powerful industry buys public opinion and openly undermines the integrity of government.