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Alberta Plays Catch-up on Frack Front

Regulator acknowledges water risks, says hydraulic fluids disclosure will be required.

By Andrew Nikiforuk 23 Feb 2012 |

Award-winning journalist Andrew Nikiforuk writes about energy for The Tyee and others. Find his previous Tyee articles here.

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Hydraulic fracturing or 'fracking' forces chemicals into the ground to pry open trapped gas deposits.

Alberta's energy regulating agency yesterday held a technical briefing for media on the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing. The picture that emerged was of a province playing catch-up with continental events that have other governments' regulators and researchers on high alert.

Cal Hill, executive manager of the Regulatory Development Branch of the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) said his agency is now actively investigating four (the ERCB later corrected that figure to five) well blow-outs caused by horizontal multi-stage hydraulic fracking.

The controversial technology blasts volumes of water, sand and toxic chemicals at high pressure into previously uneconomic oil and gas formations. (A horizontal well can go down to depths of 650 and 3,500 meters and then curve to extend up to two kilometres underground.)

The brute force technology has been banned or suspended in Quebec, France, South Africa, North Rhine-Westphalia, Bulgaria, parts of Australia and in a number of U.S. states pending more detailed investigations.

In Alberta, a Talisman horizontal frack job blew fluid into a nearby well in 2009 and that was followed by more explosive incidents in 2010 and 2011 as well as 18 inter-well blow-outs in British Columbia's shale gas fields.

Hill admitted that his agency, charged with developing oil and gas in a manner that is fair and in the public interest, didn't think that experience of B.C.'s shale gas fields or that province's public safety advisory on fracturing would apply to Alberta's shale oil deposits.

But subsequent events proved the agency wrong.

Risks to groundwater cited

The Alberta regulator did not announce an investigation until a January 2011 fracturing incident made global headlines. That remarkable event sent oil and fluid spurting out of an existing well 1.2 km away from the oil shale well being fractured near Innisfail, Alberta.

Since 2008, companies have drilled more than 3,300 so-called horizontal multi-staged fracked wells largely in oil shale formations. In the last 50 years, more than 167,000 oil and gas wells have been vertically fractured open with explosives, diesel fuel and other chemicals including propane and nitrogen.

Hill said the horizontal multi-staged fracking technology posed two high risks to groundwater. The first involved fluid going up a badly sealed wellbore and then leaking into an aquifer. The improper handling of waste fluids on the surface could also contaminate groundwater.

He omitted any mention of two prominent U.S. studies in Wyoming and Pennsylvania that have strongly associated hydraulic fracturing with extensive methane contamination of groundwater and water wells.

When asked to explain the omission, Hill said that U.S. EPA Pavillion study was still under review and that Pennsylvania Duke University study suggested that bad well bore casing may be the issue.

Methane is buoyant and looking for a way up to the surface, explained Hill "There is an expectation you are going to find some signal in groundwater," he added. "How did it get there and how did the oil and gas activity exacerbate that problem. That's a complicated problem that we'd welcome more answers to."

Now that Wyoming, Louisiana, Colorado, Montana and North Dakota require full disclosure on the chemical contents of fracking fluids, the ERCB will follow suit in a couple of months.

"We are working for full fluid disclosure," said Hill.

No conclusions on earthquakes

A 2011 US Congress report disclosed that fracking fluids can include coffee grinds, salt, ceramic balls, walnut hulls, lead, petroleum distillates, methanol, (a dirty air pollutant) benzene, toluene, xylene and millions of gallons of diesel. Many are proven cancer-makers.

Moreover, Hill admitted that he knew of no toxic fluids "that are prohibited" in the province. Many jurisdictions, for example, banned diesel fuel as a fracking fluid years ago to protect groundwater.

Hill said that there had been reports of earthquakes associated with hydraulic fracturing near Cochrane, Alberta but no definitive correlation.

"We don't have any correlation between hydraulic fracturing and clusters of earthquakes you can feel." In Cochrane, area landowners have reported broken windows and cracked foundations after extensive fracking operations for shale oil.

Hill said there are approximately 100 fluid injection wells that pump fracking waste water from oil and gas site two miles into the earth. These facilities have been associated with strong earthquake activity in British Columbia, Ohio, Arkansas and Texas. But not in Alberta, said Hill.

'Bore integrity' critical

Hill admitted that if oil and gas wells are not properly cased and cemented, that natural gas can leak from wellbores into groundwater. He called well bore integrity perhaps the most critical issue associated with hydraulic fracturing.

However three other board staff at the meeting could not provide details on well auditing programs or even what percentage of Alberta's 176,211 producing wells were actively monitored for leaks.

In recent years, the ERCB has systematically embraced self-regulation by placing a greater responsibility on the oil and gas industry for reporting, testing and eliminating wellbore casing leaks and gas migration problems.

A University of Calgary study suggests nearly five per cent of all Alberta wells leak, but in some well classes the percentage may be as high as 15 per cent. In Norway, leaks range from 13 to 41 per cent while 43 per cent of offshore wells in the Gulf of Mexico actively leak methane.

In 2011, the ERCB reported that companies disclosed "high risk" failures to properly cement or vent wells 211 times out of a total of 4,831 paper audits voluntarily submitted by companies to the regulator.

No new money for monitoring

Despite a major increase in horizontal multi-stage fracking in oil shale formations (some 3,300 wells since 2008), the province has not allotted more money for earthquake, groundwater, gas migration or wellbore integrity monitoring. (The Alberta Geological Survey recently beefed up seismic monitoring after dozens of earthquakes a decade in the province turned into hundreds after 1985.)

"Nothing specific" has been set aside for additional monitoring admitted Hill.

Asked if the ERCB would implement recommendations proposed by noted researcher Karlis Muehlenbachs on hydraulic fracturing, Hill remained non-committal.

He said some ERCB staff had looked at Muehlenbach's work but he didn't know if the agency would consider any of the University of Alberta geochemist's recommendations. "I know staff is familiar with this work," said Hill.

Muehlenbachs, a global expert on gas leaks from wellbores, recently recommended at a Washington, D.C. conference that regulators do rigorous gas and water testing prior to fracturing formations. In particular, he would mandate baseline isotope (a type of fingerprint identification) testing of methane for all water wells and groundwater sources.

In addition, Muehlenbachs says regulators must also test for ethane and propane (the shale gas fingerprint) as well as gas from abandoned wells and natural seeps and gases from well casings. "The above requirements are not onerous; such isotope data is often in hand for it is used to optimize production," adds Muehlenbachs.

In contrast to the ERCB, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has supported similar reforms including "the need for collection of baseline data, greater transparency on chemical composition of hydraulic fracturing fluids, and greater emphasis on well construction and integrity requirements and testing."

Contacted by the Tyee, Muehlenbachs said he had not heard from the regulator and had not formally communicated with the agency since 2006.

A new University of Texas study on hydraulic fracturing urgently called for more science on the technology and noted that a lack of baseline studies in areas of shale gas development makes it difficult to evaluate the long-term, cumulative effects and risks associated with the brute force technique.

David Layzell, director of the University of Calgary's Institute of Energy, Environment and Economics also called for tougher regulations on how oil and gas wells are constructed and monitored as well as more basic science. "How much methane is already in groundwater before fracking begins?" he asked a Vancouver crowd at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science last week. "How much methane is actually leaked at the well head? There is a crying need for better baseline data."

Bob Curran, a spokesman for the ERCB, said the briefing had been called to "separate fact from fiction" because "there have been some misunderstandings out there."

[Tags: Energy, Environment, Politics]  [Tyee]

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