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How Canada's Become a Home for Some of the Biggest Fracking Projects

As furious debate over fracking continues in the United States, it is instructive to look at how a similar gas boom is unfolding for our neighbor to the north.

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Ken Paulson, chief engineer at the province's Oil and Gas Commission, said these events do not pose a contamination risk. Other experts say their principal impact is to undermine production.

But opponents of expanded shale drilling say instances of communication show that drillers lack a full understanding of what happens when wells are fracked closer together, increasing the risk of contamination. Anthony Ingraffea, an engineering professor at Cornell University, said that if a fracture hit a natural fault, it could allow contaminants to enter aquifers.

Communication has occurred in the U.S. as well: Regulators in Texas, Oklahoma, Michigan and Pennsylvania  reported such events to Canadian officials as part of the Energy Resources Conservation Board's regulatory review.

Documents provided to ProPublica  show that energy companies have reported 25 cases of communication in British Columbia since 2009. Companies are not required to report such events, so the list isn't comprehensive, Paulson said.

In May 2010, the province's Oil and Gas Commission  issued a warning when a drilling company inadvertently shot sand from one fracking job into another well being drilled more than 2,000 feet away.

The advisory said the operator contained the resulting jump in pressure within the well but warned of a "potential safety hazard." When communication occurs, Paulson said, the biggest concern is that an operator could lose control of a well and cause a blowout.

Concerns Over Water Consumption

As the debate over communication continues, Parfitt and other Canadian environmentalists have raised more immediate concerns about water use. Fracking requires lots of water -- on their biggest reported fracking job, Apache and Encana used an average of 28 million gallons of water per well.

While the oil and gas industry says it is responsible for 1 percent or less of British Columbia's overall water use, environmental advocates say that may not reflect the full extent of the industry's consumption or long-term needs.

Drillers use both surface and groundwater. Access to surface water is regulated by two agencies that issue long-term licenses or year-long permits. Overwhelmingly, energy companies have chosen to obtain permits, which require less regulatory review.

Most groundwater withdrawals aren't regulated at all. Drillers need permits to sink water wells, but there are no limits on the amount of water that can be taken from them. They can also purchase water from other well owners, so there's no way to track overall use.

"How much water is actually being used and, more importantly, how much water is projected to be used over next the 10 to 15 years? Because of the scattershot approach of regulation, this isn't something we can actually answer right now,"said Matt Horne, acting director of the climate change program at the Pembina Institute, an environmental think tank that published a report on the gas industry's water use.

Last year, in  a report focusing on province-wide groundwater oversight, British Columbia's auditor general said the province was not adequately protecting aquifers from overuse and potential contamination. Agencies lacked the basic data necessary to assess the risks, such as the number and extent of the province's aquifers, the report said.

The Ministry of Energy and Mines, in a written response to questions, said the province is taking several steps to improve oversight of water use, including a research project studying aquifers. The agency said it can review large groundwater withdrawal projects and that pending changes to the province's water law would regulate withdrawals.

Drillers themselves are also moving to address water concerns. Encana and Apache have started using saline water not suitable for drinking or irrigation in some of their projects. Alan Boras, the Encana spokesman, said the company uses non-potable water almost exclusively in its main operating area in the Horn River Basin, where the largest frack jobs were reported.

 
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