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Energy Minister’s Fracking Defence Ignores Research

Mungall, Liberal critics silent on risks of water contamination and methane leaks, despite science.

By Andrew Nikiforuk 5 Dec 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about the energy industry for two decades and is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Find his previous stories here.

As the legislative sitting entered its final days, Energy Minister Michelle Mungall faced questions about LNG and hydraulic fracturing from Liberal MLAs Mike Bernier (Peace River South) and Ellis Ross (Skeena).

Both the questions and the answers bore little relation to reality and repeatedly misrepresented the facts and science on the controversial technology and the nature of drilling in the northeast.

The Nov. 20 exchange in the legislature began with a discussion of liquified natural gas projects, which the former Liberal government subsidized and championed as the bright light in B.C.’s future.

But global economics, bad timing and a glut of LNG supply forced most foreign developers to cancel their plans indefinitely.

Ross, who views LNG as way to enrich coastal Indigenous communities, asked how the New Democrat government, also an LNG booster, could improve the industry’s competitiveness?

Mungall said the government would review its carbon tax, and then praised an industry that doesn’t really exist. “I’ve got to really hand it to the LNG industry and to the natural gas industry,” she said. “They have been very forward-thinking when it comes to reducing GHGs.”

This is highly problematic statement. For starters, the province’s energy regulator doesn’t even have a handle on the volume of methane leaking from 26,000 oil and gas wells in northeastern B.C.

As The Tyee recently reported, the BC Oil and Gas Commission withheld a report on hundreds of leaking wells in Jean Marie, a small shale formation, from the public for four years.

Earlier this year a peer-reviewed study found that methane emissions from B.C.’s shale gas basins are at least 2.5 times higher than provincial government estimates.

The friendly exchange between Ross and Mungall continued.

“Is a moratorium a valid option when it comes to the extraction of LNG in B.C.?” asked Ross.

The question was oddly phrased. Liquified natural gas is not extracted. Methane is mined, largely from the Montney shale basin in northeastern BC. LNG is produced when the methane is cooled and liquified in an energy intensive process.

Mungall replied that the government would strike a scientific panel to look at the technology because “there are concerns all over the world… about the process of hydraulic fracturing, particularly on water quality and water quantity and induced seismicity.”

But concerns about fracking don’t end with water contamination and unprecedented earthquake-making activity. They include the fragmentation of forests, the industrialization of agricultural lands, gas migration, and the violation of First Nations’ rights and treaties. There are also growing public health concerns about people who live near fracking operations.

But Mungall made no mention of these issues. Nor did she address the hot button issue: the leakage of methane from wells that have been hydraulically fractured.

Researchers estimate that leakage rates greater than three per cent of what is extracted from shale gas basins make methane a fuel as dirty as coal in terms of destabilizing impacts on the climate.

The methane leakage problem has now reached a crisis point. Canada is the world’s fourth largest emitter of methane from oil and gas installations and about 70 per cent of those emissions come from B.C. and Alberta.

Eliminating just 45 per cent of those emissions would be the greenhouse has equivalent of parking every car in those two provinces. But promised policies to curb emissions have not happened yet.

Instead regulators have let hydraulic fracturing play a major role in increasing methane emissions in B.C. and Alberta over the last decade.

As well as methane leaks, the industry releases greenhouse gases through “flaring,” or burning gas that can’t be processed or sold. The Alberta Energy Regulator explains that fracked wells take “longer to recover load fluids and clean out wells in these operations, resulting in greater flare volumes and longer flaring durations than with vertical wells and wells that are not fractured.”

Flaring has steadily increased in B.C. since 2012, primarily due to hydraulic fracturing in the north Montney. From 2010 to 2014 the volume of methane flared has increased from 183 million cubic meters to 236 million cubic metres — enough wasted gas to heat 87,407 homes.

Ross then again pressed Mungall on the possibility of a moratorium on fracking, asking if it would be “a valid option when it comes to the end of your scientific review?”

Mungall replied that a moratorium was unthinkable.

“Most of our homes are heated by natural gas in B.C. That natural gas comes from the northeast, for the most part, and it is pulled up from the ground using hydraulic fracturing. The idea that suddenly in B.C., in a Canadian province, we would turn off the switch to the way in which we heat our homes... Who would do that, right?”

Mungall didn’t capture the whole truth here either. According to Natural Resources Canada, about 80 per cent of the province’s methane extraction requires hydraulic fracturing while the rest comes from conventional vertical wells. In other words, a moratorium on fracking would not leave the province without methane.

Nor does everybody in the province depend on methane to heat their homes. According to a 2011 analysis by Statistics Canada, natural gas is the principal energy sources for only 54 per cent of British Columbia households. Electricity remains the second most common fuel source.

Nor are moratoriums “unthinkable.” Many jurisdictions have imposed moratoriums while investigating the risks associated with the brute force technology.

A Labour government in Western Australia, for example, just banned the technology for 12 months while it conducts a review.

It is the fifth of Australia’s six states in Australia to restrict the technology due to rising concerns about methane leaks, groundwater contamination and the industrialization of agricultural land. Earlier this year the state of Victoria extended a ban on unconventional gas development because of widespread community concerns about the risks posed to groundwater, agricultural production and tourism.

The Australian experience alone suggests that a scientific inquiry that can’t consider a moratorium is probably nothing more than a corporate rubber stamp.

Bernier then asked Mungall “how many times there’s been a water aquifer contaminated by hydraulic fracturing” in B.C.

Mungall replied with a brief sentence. “A very short answer to the member’s question is zero, and we want to keep it that way.”

But that’s not accurate.

The government doesn’t know how many aquifers have been contaminated by hydraulic fracturing because it has refused to invest in a proper groundwater monitoring program in northeastern B.C.

Across North America scientific studies and the regulatory record show that fracking has contaminated hundreds, if not thousands, of water wells in Alberta, Wyoming, Texas, Colorado and Pennsylvania.

Industry has also hid the scale of the problem with non-disclosure agreements.

John Cherry, a contaminant hydrologist who chaired an expert federal panel on the impact of fracking in Canada, has repeatedly noted that no Canadian jurisdiction has properly implemented long-term groundwater monitoring in geologies now being disturbed by the technology.

“I found no cases where rigorous groundwater monitoring has been done at any fracking pad. Exactly zero, not a single one. Anywhere, ever.”

An effective groundwater monitoring system, as set out by Vancouver engineer Frank Patton in 1998, places measuring devices into wells specifically to sample and track water contaminants over time and at various depths from a variety of locations.

British Columbia has not made this investment.

Had the minister stuck to the facts she should have added leaking wells in the province also pose a demonstrable risk to groundwater and the regulator has suppressed data on this problem for four years.

Bernier backed Mungall’s claim. “People out there are saying that hydraulic fracturing is bad and that it’s contaminating water, when actually, in British Columbia, because of our strict regulations that we’ve had over the last 40 years, it has never happened.”

But Cherry, has noted there is no evidence that BC regulations have made hydraulic fracturing safe. “As an expert, I know that British Columbia has invested very little money in the type of research and monitoring that it would need to make statements about shale gas being safe.”

Then Mungall made another significant error.

“Again, I’ll say that when we look at the hydraulic fracturing that is already being done, 90 per cent of their water is being recycled already, hundreds and hundreds of times. It shows me that if they haven’t done everything they can, they’re certainly on the right path.”

Not even the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers agrees with this statement. In 2015 the industry lobbyist reported that only 30 per cent — not 90 per cent — of the water “used for hydraulic fracturing in B.C. comes from non-freshwater sources, including flowback reuse, recycled municipal waste water and saline groundwater.”

A 2015 report by BC’s Oil and Gas Commission also notes that approximately 35 per cent of the water used for hydraulic fracturing came from municipal sources.

That means that more than 60 per cent of nearly eight million cubic metres of water used for fracking in 2015 was pulled from rivers, dugouts, unauthorized dams, lakes and groundwater.

The overall trend in the industry is to use more freshwater, not less.

During the reality bending exchange, not one politician referred to the developments driving more drilling and fracking in northeastern B.C.

Fracking is no longer just about the methane in British Columbia.

Given the collapse of LNG projects and depressed methane prices, industry has now focused on high value natural gas liquids or condensates.

Even Encana, the top oil and gas producer in B.C., refers to the Montney as “a condensate play.” The company has changed its focus from methane extraction to “higher margin, higher return condensate rich wells.”

Seven Generations Energy, another big player in northeastern BC, now extracts more condensate and natural gas liquids than it does methane.

Condensate is a highly valuable commodity worth about $78 a barrel. That’s nearly twice the value of a barrel of heavy crude or Western Canada Select.

The oilsands industry requires about 400,000 barrels of condensate a day to dilute tarry bitumen so it can move the junk crude through pipelines.

But there is a domestic condensate shortage.

Mungall made no mention of condensate or natural gas liquids and their growing importance in northeastern B.C.  [Tyee]

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