Quebec communities have been up in arms at public hearings being held by the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE) this month on the province’s plans to drill for natural gas using a risky new technology known as hydraulic fracturing on fertile agricultural land.
With provincial governments seeking to expand natural gas development as a source of revenue, communities across the country are suddenly faced with a new threat to ground and surface water resources. Others like Rosebud Alberta have been dealing with the environmental impacts of an industry that promotes itself as clean and green for years.
What is hydraulic fracturing?
Hydraulic fracturing (also known as “fracking” or hydro-fracking) is a technique used to release oil and natural gas from conventional and unconventional sources. In order to extract natural gas from underground formations, a fluid made with water, sand and chemicals is injected at a pressure that cracks open the formation and forces the gas up the well.
Where is this happening in Canada?
Hydraulic fracturing is used to extract shale gas in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Alberta. The three provinces have promised to lower environmental standards and increase royalties to entice the natural gas industry. Massive shale developments are also being planned for Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
Depletion of water resources
Large amounts of water are required for hydraulic fracturing, particularly from shale. This water can come from municipal sources, surface or ground water and often needs to be trucked in from elsewhere. Approximately 2 to 9 million gallons of water are required for a single “fracking” job. Because much of it becomes so contaminated it does not (or should not) return to the watershed.
In some areas like Albuquerque, ground water depletion has been so extreme that it has caused the land to collapse.
Hydraulic fracturing poses a threat to fresh water quality either through ground water contamination resulting from the injections of toxic fracking fluids into or near aquifers or through the handling and spilling of waste fluids.
Fluid waste containing toxic and radioactive substances, known as “wastewater flowback” is often stored in large pits. Sometimes it is treated at municipal water treatments facilities and discharged into waterways putting drinking water supplies at risk.
Not all the water used in a hydraulic fracturing process is recovered. Once injected, some of the hydraulic fluid remains trapped underground allowing hazardous materials and carcinogens to contaminate groundwater. In addition, even if toxic chemicals are not used in the injection itself, the process can disturb aquifers by creating pathways for fluids or gases from other geological layers to flow into groundwater sources. The water may collect arsenic, hydrocarbons and radioactivity from the shale deposit itself.
Impacts on drinking water
There are several reports of drinking water contamination associated with hydraulic fracturing where the method has been used in the United States. According to a U.S. Environmental protection Agency study, 20 to 40 per cent of fluids can remain can remain trapped in target formations for decades. This means the extent of the contamination is difficult to measure and may not reveal itself till decades later.
Landowners in Rosebud Alberta have documented stories of being able to light tap water on fire , developing skin burns and rashes from taking showers, pets refusing to drink water as a result of well water contamination after Calgary based energy company EnCana began hydro-fracking operations in the area.
In Canada, many of the chemicals associated with hydraulic fracturing fluid are not listed in the federal drinking water guidelines used by municipalities. Their presence in drinking water will therefore not be measured, tested and reported.
The precautionary principle must be applied
The precautionary principle is the duty to prevent harm. Any development that poses a potential threat to the environment must be halted until it is proven beyond any doubt that the proposed development is safe.
While government and industry have insisted that the risks associated with hydro-fracking have not been proven, communities across North America have documented sufficient evidence to indicate that hydraulic fracturing is an environmentally harmful method. Impacts on drinking water supply been documented extensively.
Furthermore, vast amounts of water are required at a time when water shortages are being reported across Canada as a result of climate change and unsustainable industrial development.
Finally, when it comes to the actual content of hydraulic fracturing fluids the public has been kept in the dark. The composition of the hydraulic fracturing fluid are considered a trade secret for the corporations using the method. They are therefore not required to disclose information regarding the injections to the public or even regulatory agencies, even where drinking water supplies may be affected.
Given the mounting evidence against hydraulic fracturing and the secrecy surrounding fracking fluids, the precautionary principle must be applied to prevent provincial governments from forging ahead with this dangerous new technology.
References and resources
Bracken, Lisa. Fracking Primer: http://www.bctwa.org/Frk-FrackingPrimer.pdf
BC Tap Water Alliance: http://www.bctwa.org/FrackingBC.html
Conservation Council of New Brunswick, Fracking Primer: http://conservationcouncil.ca/files/Publications/FrackingPrimer_Final.pdf
Deveau, Jean-Louis. No Fracking Way: Ban Hydraulic Fracturing in Canada: http://www.rabble.ca/news/2010/07/no-fracking-way-ban-hydraulic-fracturing-canada
Nelson, Joyce. Watershed Sentinel: “Fracking-Natural Gas Affects Water Quality” http://www.watershedsentinel.ca/content/fracking-natural-gas-affects-water-quality
“This is not your Granfather’s Gas Well”: http://www.bctwa.org/Frk-NotYourGrandfather.pdf
Sumi, Lisa, 2010. Environmental Concerns and Regulatory Initiatives Related to Hydraulic Fracturing in Shale Gas Formations: Potential Implications for North American Gas Supply: http://canadians.org/energy/documents/fracking/report-fracturing-1010.pdf
Blog post written by Meera Karunananthan, National Water Campaigner, Council of Canadians