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Council of Canadians to OEB: watch out for fracking

Today I joined Council of Canadians Board Member Steven Shrybman and Lisa Sumi, Science and Research Director with EARTHWORKs at an Ontario Energy Board (OEB) consultation.

The consultation assists board-staff consideration of options for better regulating the provincial natural gas sector. To begin this process, the OEB commissioned a report from ICF International to review the North American market. When Steven received and shared a copy of this report with me and Mark Calzavara, Ontario-Quebec Regional Organizer, we immediately noted the role that shale is predicted to play in meeting Ontario and North American gas needs: “The development of shale gas resources is a “game changer” for the North American natural gas market. Even though it is relatively new, shale gas has already become a significant component of total production, accounting for 13 percent of the North American gas supply in 2009. By 2020, shale gas is projected to grow…and account for over 30 percent of the total supply.” (ICF 2010 Natural Gas Market Review, p. 7).

This is disturbing. After all, the shale gas boom in the U.S. is generating serious public concern.

We’ve been monitoring this growing concern. There are dramatic examples such as residents living near fracked wells literally being able to light the water from their tap on fire as a result of methane contamination, that are being increasingly exposed in documentaries such as Gasland, and grassroots, community opposition. It is the serious environmental and social concerns with shale gas development and fracking that informed our decision to participate in the OEB consultation.

Lisa, an expert on fracking based in the U.S., wrote a report on our behalf for the OEB to expose the risks of fracking and encourage the Board to question reliance on shale gas for future supply needs. This is just one way in which we are beginning to challenge shale gas development. Today, Lisa gave a presentation to a packed room of OEB board, staff and other stakeholders including oil and gas industry. Her presentation gave an excellent overview of key concerns with fracking and regulatory initiatives underway in the U.S., focusing primarily on Marcellus shale. We hope that our report influences the OEB’s perspective on shale gas development.

We also firmly believe that Canadians need to pay attention to the experiences of the shale gas boom in the U.S. which is spreading to Canada. There are significant reserves in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Quebec as well as further potential in Ontario, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Here are some highlights.

A little bit of background information on fracking: Fracking is a technique used to stimulate the production of oil and natural gas. Alongside the development of horizontally drilled wells, it has ushered in a boom of shale gas development in the U.S. that is increasingly spreading to Canada. Wells are sunk five to eight thousand feet deep into the ground using a steel pipe, known as casing. Companies perforate the casing in the shale, injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the well at high pressures, typically ten to fifteen thousand pounds per square inch. This fluid goes into the shale formation and eventually causes the formation to crack under the pressure. The release of this pressure allows fluids flow back up the well, and the sand is left behind to prop open the fractures. There is a host of impacts related to fracking.

Water requirements: There is a difference between conventional natural gas and fracking for shale when it comes to water requirements. A typical shale gas well in the Marcellus region might require one to ten million gallons water which is five to one hundred times more then a conventional well would use. It has been reported that shale wells in BC’s Horn River Basin may require as much as 26 million gallons of water to frack a single horizontal well. Huge water withdrawals are a concern for people regionally. There are concerns about the impacts on aquatic systems, surface water depletion, and disruption of natural flow regime, some impacts have already been felt. This past summer in Pennsylvania, water levels were so low in some of the tributaries of the Susquehanna River, that regulators were forced to shut down some of the natural gas industry’s water withdrawals.

The potential trucking in of massive amounts of water also raises localized air quality and traffic concerns – the transportation of a million gallons of water to fracture a well is estimated to require 200 truck trips. This heavy use of water required during the exploratory and fracking stage is particularly disturbing given that close to half of a fracked well’s production is achieved in the first few years of a typical ten to fifteen year life cycle per fracked well. This means that more wells need to be drilled to keep up production. The Marcellus shale is predicted by the ICF report to include the drilling of 1200 wells, per year.

Chemical exposures: A four billion gallon frack job requires 80 tons or 200,000 gallons of chemicals to move through communities, requires storage and presents potential spill consequences. There is currently a lot of debate over whether fracking can create pathways for methane or chemicals to migrate to ground water. Recent cases in Pennsylvania have seen methane transportation into homes leading to explosions and methane and chemicals such as benzene contaminating nearby drinking water. Fracking fluid can also find pathways to the surface through old wells. 

In Pennsylvania, Cabot oil and gas has been required to provide a fresh water supply to more than a dozen homes where water has been contaminated. There are two types of fluid wastes that need to be managed by operators, fracking fluids that flow back into the well, and produced water generated after the initial surge of wastewater.

The management of this water poses significant challenges to the industry.  Recent chemical analyses of flowback from Marcellus wells in Pennsylvania revealed high concentrations (i.e., at levels exceeding water quality standards) of volatile organic compounds like benzene, semi-volatile compounds such as naphthalene and radioactive substances such as radium. This poses environmental and health risks.

Air emissions from waste impoundments – waste water is typically stored in open pits – have raised serious concerns with local air quality. For example, there are stories coming from Colorado, Texas and Pennsylvania of people living near waste impoundments experiencing a host of illnesses.

Research by Dr. Theo Colborn has found that eighty percent of fracking chemicals in her database are associated with skin, eye and respiratory harm, 75 percent with harm to the gastrointestinal system, and 50 percent with brain and nervous system effects.

In response to these very serious environmental and health concerns, there is a range of regulatory changes underway in the U.S. both on a state and federal level that threaten to make shale gas a “game changer” of a different sort. For example, there are currently no wells being drilled in the New York portion of the Marcellus shale reservoir. There is a moratorium in place while the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation reviews impacts, particularly the potential to contaminate New York City water supply.

In Pennsylvania a severance tax is before the senate which threatens to spur a decline in the growth of gas production. Regulations regarding water discharge standards, air quality standards and an obligation to reveal what chemicals are being used by the industry (currently considered propriety in most areas) also threaten to raise costs for industry and impact predicted growth.

In conclusion, Lisa argued that there are many regulatory uncertainties around shale gas and the OEB needs to consider these uncertainties in planning its policies and regulations in the coming years. A lively question and answer session followed with a number of interesting and challenging questions being posed to the authors of the ICF report, based on Lisa’s evidence. OEB staff thanked the Council and Lisa for the helpful study. Certainly, had we not intervened, it is unlikely these important arguments would have been shared. We will be following up with a written submission to the Board in the coming weeks.