One of Alberta's largest landowner groups says it will make hydraulic fracturing a major election issue this spring if the Alberta government does not act on its request for an immediate moratorium on the controversial industry practice.
Don Bester, president of the Alberta Surface Rights Group, which represents 1,400 landowners, told The Tyee that if the government doesn't "step up to the plate," the group will hold politicians "criminally responsible" for any horizontal drilling incidents that contaminate groundwater or leak poisonous hydrogen sulfide.
Hydraulic fracturing blasts open tight oil, gas and coal formations with highly pressurized volumes of water, sand and undisclosed chemicals in order to release methane or light oil.
The 60-year-old technology has boosted gas and oil reserves but has become the subject of serious government investigations throughout the world, though not in Alberta. Concerns about "fracking" range from measuring the risk of surface and groundwater contamination to its role in causing increased earthquake activity and dangerous methane leaks.
Bester's high profile group called for a full moratorium on hydraulic fracturing last week after a Calgary-based company injected fluids at such high pressure into a 1,800-metre-deep oil formation that the liquids travelled more than 1.2 kilometre underground and ruptured an oil well near Innisfail, Alberta on Jan. 13.
"It was spewing oil 60 feet into the air all around a pump jack well near the Red Deer River," says 65-year-old Bester.
"If these companies can't control these fracks, what is the potential to destroy a complete aquifer with toxic chemicals? We're not convinced that these fracks will stay in the formation that they were intended to crack open," adds Bester.
"The potential to cause cross-communication from the fracking zone to zones that contain active fresh water aquifers is one of the many concerns," warned the group in a public letter to the Alberta government last week.
"The continual denial by the ERCB (Alberta's energy regulator) that this will not happen is very much a concern as every professional geologist knows there are naturally occurring fractures in every formation." Contamination of fresh water aquifers, warned Bester, is "inevitable."
Worrisome evidence mount
Recent U.S. studies in Wyoming and Pennsylvania have shown that the cracking of deep shale formations can strongly increase the risk of methane contamination of well water and groundwater perhaps through wellbores or natural fractures. The mechanisms are not fully understood.
Fracturing of groundwater formations was first reported in Canada in 1986 when "hydraulic fractures propagated into the underlying water zone" in Manitoba.
After the Midway fracking incident the ASRG warned that fracking operations could penetrate nearby sour gas wells resulting in catastrophic releases of toxic hydrogen sulfide (H2S).
"H2S has the extreme potential to cause serious health problems, or even death, to nearby residents that could be totally unaware of a blowout. The dangers of these types of unnoticed incidents that are great distances from the actual fracking site are simply a disaster waiting to happen."
One such fracking episode in Texas sent plumes of sour gas up an abandoned oil well in 2010.
Nearly 30 per cent of Alberta's gas reserves contain the deadly neurological toxin. Incredibly, the ERCB has already approved hydraulic fracturing under a massive sour gas field for a new Calgary well.
Bester says the regulator's response to the Innisfail well blow-out was worrisome. A local farmer tried to alert the Energy Resources Conservation Board about the Jan. 13 incident, but the province's energy regulator failed to answer its emergency phone line.
The farmer, acting on advice from the ASRG, then informed the fracking crew about the well blowout. "They couldn't believe that a frack job could come to surface more than a mile away," says Bester. Yet it is not uncommon for fracking operations to impact gas or oil wells nearly a mile away.
As soon as Midway Energy shut down its fracturing operation, the oil gusher "went down to nothing," says Bester. His group, along with Alberta's New Democrats and other civic associations, want an independent investigation of hydraulic fracturing. (Two MLAs in B.C. have asked for a review of that province's massive shale gas industry, too.)
'That tire will blow'
The ASRG, whose members deal with drilling and fracking crews on a daily basis, also want more transparency on what has now become a routine occurrence in unconventional oil and gas plays: the contamination of existing wells by fracking operations.
"If you inflate a tire designed for 28 pounds of pressure and you put 1,000 pounds in it, that tire will blow," explains Bester, a retired reservoir engineer.
"And that's exactly what happens with to rock formations during hydraulic fracturing operations.... There was so much pressure with the Innisfail frack that the existing nearby well couldn't handle it. "
In 2010 BC's Oil and Gas Commission (OGC) issued a public safety advisory after highly pressurized injections of northern shale reservoirs resulted in 18 incidents of well contamination. One frack operation blasted chemical fluids and sand into another well just 670 metres away.
"Fracture fluids introduced into producing wells result in suspended production, substantial remediation costs and pose a potential safety hazard," reported the OGC.
The agency also confirmed the uncertain nature of the technology: "Fracture propagation via large scale hydraulic fracturing operations has proven difficult to predict. Existing planes of weakness in target formations may result in fracture lengths that exceed initial design expectations."
Similar incidents have been reported across the United States. In North Dakota's booming Bakken shale oil fields, one engineer recently reported at least four incidents in which fracking fluids shot "into offset wells 1,500 to 2,200 feet away in transverse direction, pumping sand-laden slurry to surface."
At industry conferences engineers frequently bemoan the unpredictability of fracturing behaviour. Highly-pressurized fluids from unconventional wells have "communicated" with nearby oil and gas wells in Colorado and Utah. In one Texas accident fracking fluids invaded five adjacent vertical wells, stopping gas production altogether.
In 2009 Mike Vincent, a Colorado-based fracturing consultant, reported to the Society of Petroleum Engineers that, "Contrary to common expectations there are numerous examples of fractures intersecting offset wells (existing oil or natural gas wells near the well being fractured) but subsequently providing little or no sustained hydraulic connection between the wells. There is an understandable reluctance to publish reports documenting the intersection of adjacent wellbores with hydraulic fractures. Such information could unnecessarily alarm regulators or adjacent leaseholders who may infer that well spacing or fracture treatments are allowing unexpected capture of reserves."
"In the design of hydraulic fractures, it is necessary to make simplifying assumptions," Vincent wrote. "Although computing tools have improved, as an industry we remain incapable of fully describing the complexity of the fracture, reservoir and fluid flow regimes." Industry, he adds, rarely publishes information about the technology's many failures and accidents.
Fracking is safe: Alberta Tories
Given the unpredictability of complex fracturing operations, groups of citizens in New York are now lobbying for better regulation, baseline water monitoring and at least 4,000 ft setbacks from water wells and aquifers. Other jurisdictions such as Quebec, Bulgaria, New York and France have banned the practice or imposed moratoriums due to water concerns.
Alberta's Tories, which have ruled the province for 40 years and are heavily dependent on oil and gas revenues, contend that hydraulic fracking is perfectly safe and requires no review.
Yet the ERCB admits that as many as five well communication incidents have occurred during the fracking of some 2,000 horizontal wells since 2008. The companies involved include Talisman, Bonterra, Yangarra and Bellatrix. Industry insiders suggest the real number is probably much higher.
The Midway incident made global headlines because it connected one well to an existing operation at an unprecedented distance of 1.2 km away.
Alberta's regulator did not answer any questions submitted by The Tyee, but forwarded a Jan. 23 press release asking oil and gas companies to "immediately report any instance of unintended inter-well communication to the nearest ERCB Field Office."
Numerous central Alberta families now have flaming or contaminated drinking water after industry dotted the province's farm belt with poorly regulated and experimental coal bed methane wells over the last decade.
"Yes, people are being harmed and poisoned but we believe it's not just about the people," Ronalie Campbell, a rancher, told a Ponoka audience last week. "It's about the water, the resource we all need to live. It's our job to tell the people the truth." Her family lost its water in 2005 after extensive and repeated fracking in the area.
In 2006 the ERCB issued an interim order that restricted shallow fracturing of gas reservoirs after the practice contaminated groundwater:
"Information provided by industry to date shows that there may not always be a complete understanding of fracture propagation at shallow depths and that programs are not always subject to rigorous engineering design," said the order.
When wells 'communicate'
In Australia the shallow fracking of coal seams also resulted in groundwater contamination and a major ongoing government investigation.
In addition, Jessica Ernst, an oil patch consultant, recently sued Encana Corporation for $33 million for contaminating a freshwater aquifer in southern Alberta in 2004 after the company extensively fracked coal seams near her home. The claim alleges that Alberta Environment and the ERCB "failed to follow the investigation and enforcement processes that they had established and publicized."
New studies show that fracking can impact rocks over an extensive area. A 2011 study by Denbury Resources (an independent US firm) and presented to the US Environmental Protection Agency, found that hydraulic fracturing operations in the Barnett Shale cracked rock over a vast underground area in Texas. Cumulative frack jobs can also increase the probability of contaminating or invading other wells.
One operation propelled 17,000 pounds of water and 250,000 pounds of sand at a rate of 100 barrels of fluid per minute into shale rock. All of that brute force cracked open rocks over an 150-acre area during a six-stage frack job.
Concluded the Denbury study: "Even with the tools available to perform fracture diagnostics, operators are still faced with challenges that are difficult to predict. 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."
Industry calls hydraulic fracturing a proven technology that has dramatically increased oil and gas reserves on the continent by allowing industry to access previously uneconomic resources.
But independent scientists and industry insiders contend that 60-year-old assumptions about the technology initially used for vertical wells no longer hold true.
When combined with horizontal drilling, which can stretch a mile long underground, hydraulic fracturing can open different kinds of reservoirs, "challenging the fundamental assumptions upon which our existing candidate selection and design methodology are built."
(Full Disclosure: Andrew Nikiforuk is an Alberta landowner but not a member of the ASRG.)