The problem with writing a long feature article about the fracking industry in Canada is the in-line ads in my Gmail, which repeatedly encourage me to visit http://www.morefactslessfriction.ca/ where I can get the facts on hydraulic fracturing. Which would be great, if it actually contained more than a handful of vague facts.
It has 6 pages. Each page has a statement; 6 statements it attempts to back up in less than 500 words per page. It was created by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, an advocacy group for many of the corporations involved in the upstream Canadian oil and natural gas industry.
Page 1: “A properly constructed natural gas well protects our water.”
“More than 175,000 wells have been hydraulically fractured in Alberta and British Columbia over the past 60 years with no evidence of groundwater contamination, according to regulators in both provinces.” – I’m not going to dispute this as a fact. But while we’re lucky that this hasn’t been an issue in western Canada so far, it’s not an impossibility, as this list of incidents where hydraulic fracturing is a suspected cause of drinking water contamination from the Natural Resources Defense Council (US) demonstrates. I think, for water contamination from wells drilled through drinking water aquifers, it’s a case of how much risk we’re willing to accept as reasonable. Good regulations, properly enforced, can certainly minimize that risk. Leaks are obviously not on the scale of oil slicks, but if and when they do occur, the chemicals are not something you’d want in drinking water. (Those chemicals have to be disclosed in British Columbia now; an overall list can be found here: http://fracfocus.ca/chemical-use/what-chemicals-are-used)
“Although hydraulic fracturing operations use large volumes of water only at the drilling stage […] the oil and gas sector uses relatively little water nationally compared to other industries in the natural resource sector.” – This is a point that grates on me for two reasons. The first is that just because one thing is worse than another, that doesn’t mean the first thing isn’t bad. The second has to do with the specifics of how water is used in fracking. I had one industry rep compare the water used in one fracking well to the amount used on a golf course in a week. The thing is, once water has been cast across the greens, much of it seeps through the soil, rejoins aquifers, or is simply evaporated back into the sky. In other words, it returns to the water cycle, not much different than it left it. The water used for fracking is mixed with sand and chemicals (the latter make up about 1% of the mixture) before being forced into the wells. Water can be used a couple of times, but after that, it’s too contaminated for further use or to be returned to the water cycle. Some can be cleaned up, but in the remote and newly discovered gasfields such as those in northern BC, the only option is to leave it in fenced-off pits or inject it back into underground storage. Water taken from lakes and rivers is not returned. The bottom of page 1 talks about the industry’s efforts to use “grey” water, i.e. not fresh, but for now the vast majority is still fresh.
Page 2: “Hydraulic fracturing is a safe technology regulated by government.”
Regulations give people a feeling of comfort and safety – “things are being taken care of”. But the gasfields are huge, and growing at an unprecedented rate. No eyes can be everywhere. The rate of change I think makes a good parallel to the climate change. Whenever someone pulls out that old trope about “the climate has changed in the past, it’s natural,” then I always say “yes it has. But never at this magnitude at this rate.” And that’s what makes it so unmanageable (well, that and political unwillingness of course, which compounds the issue). It’s the same with fracking – regulations are in effect always playing catch-up to an industry that is expanding incredibly rapidly. Even if an exploration company is following regulations to the letter, there are more than likely plenty of other things they’re doing that haven’t even been thought up as needing regulating yet. Such as the issue of fracking inducing earthquakes (awaiting us on page 6).
Page 3 – “Using shale gas means less greenhouse gas emissions.”
Ah, this is one of my favourites – the argument that natural gas is “greener”. Yes, in general, compared to oil and coal, natural gas produces less greenhouse gases (GHGs) when burned. It also contains less acid-rain causing chemicals than dirtier forms of coal. But this simple comparison misses a lot of subtleties. One is the concept of “life-cycle emissions”. This is the tallying up of all the GHGs produced during all phases of exploration, production, transport, processing, etc; from source to use. But natural gas commonly seeps and escapes throughout the various stages, in what are collectively known as “fugitive emissions”. And natural gas is methane: a greenhouse gas far more powerful than carbon dioxide.
When natural gas replaces coal in China, overall, there may be a net decrease in GHG emissions. But Japan may also be a market for natural gas, to compensate for its flagging nuclear industry following the tsunami disaster. If you put aside for a moment whatever you feel about nuclear waste and incidents, if we’re replacing nuclear with gas, this is not a net decrease in GHGs.
And, of course, there’s the simple fact that natural gas is still a fossil fuel. It still fuels our dependence on energy sources that cause climate change.
Page 4: “Once completed, a natural gas well is about the size of a two-car garage.”
“Advances in horizontal drilling and the use of multi-well drilling pads have greatly reduced the area of land disturbed in drilling operations.” – This is certainly true. But the problem I have with this page is that it only talks about wells, as if that’s the only thing that sits on the land in natural gas exploration and extraction. There are also worker camps, processing plants and pipelines. And the physical impact that struck me the most when I was up in BC’s gasfields was seismic lines. These are 2-3 metre wide corridors shaved across great swathes of the forest, for laying equipment to probe the subsurface with geophysics. These are wide enough to drive down, and wide enough and long enough for animals to be exposed to predators right through their territory.
“Canada’s natural gas industry […] is required, by regulations, to reclaim all land affected by operations and maintain biodiversity.” – Something very interesting I only learned recently is the difference between “reclamation” and “remediation”. In Alberta, reclamation is defined by the provincial government as “the process of reconverting disturbed land to its former or other productive uses.” Remediation, in the same document, is defined as “the removal, reduction, or neutralization of substances, wastes or hazardous material from a site so as to prevent or minimize any adverse effects on the environment now or in the future.” In other words, reclamation can be as simple as covering over the area with new soil and plants, and does not actually require the removal of pollutants.
Page 5: “Natural gas producers support disclosure of fluids used in hydraulic fracturing.”
I really don’t have much to say about this. Yes, there is a mandatory disclosure of chemicals used in fracking, held at fracfocus.ca. But boy, do CAPP go on and on about how much they think this initiative is the best thing that ever happened to them (which I’m sure it isn’t).
Page 6: “Induced seismic activity and hydraulic fracturing – understand the facts.”
This page cites several recent reports of investigations into “induced seismicity” – the triggering of small earthquakes by the fracking process. It highlights the conclusions that say things like earthquakes “do not pose high risk to public safety.” Although in principle I take issue with a page that’s titled “understand the facts” that is so obviously selective in its content, I think the last report conclusion it cites is the most telling: “Hydraulic fracturing can proceed if the process is carefully monitored and appropriate precautions are taken.” So, what are the appropriate precautions? Actually opening the report this conclusion is from reveals far more uncertainty in the conclusion. The location it investigated was poorly characterized geologically, and existing models, the authors conclude, are insufficient to say what kind of earthquakes may be caused by fracking in the future.
In other words, the phenomenon of induced seismicity may be a “well-documented occurrence associated with hydraulic fracturing,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean we know exactly what its effects are, or how to manage them.
More Facts Less Friction? Somehow, this effort at “facts” just rubs me the wrong way.