What’s with our ‘fracking’ water?

Photo courtesy of Bouke Salverda

Photo courtesy of Bouke Salverda

In B.C., natural gas companies don’t have to get water permits from the provincial Ministry of the Environment as they pump unrecorded tonnes of it underground.

By Liam Lahey, re:place Magazine

It hardly seems worth the health and environmental risks yet in true wild west fashion the oil and gas industry’s practice of ‘fracking’ for shale gas deposits in northeastern B.C. goes largely unmonitored by the provincial government. Moreover, both the oil and gas industry and the provincial energy regulator downplay the amount of water that’s being used for these operations and their significant environmental impacts.

Ben Parfitt, resource policy analyst with the B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and author of ‘Fracture Lines: Will Canada’s Water Be Protected in the Rush to Develop Shale Gas?’, painted a frightening picture of what’s transpiring at the hands of energy companies and the current BC Liberal government while addressing a crowded meeting room in the central Vancouver Public Library on Mar. 16th.

What exactly is ‘fracking’? In a nutshell, fracking is slang for hydraulic fracturing: the procedure of creating fractures in rock formations by injecting fluid into cracks to force them further open. Along with other negative effects, this results in serious contamination of ground and surface water. To make matters worse, the exact composition of hydraulic fracturing fluids is unknown because the chemical mix is protected as a trade industry secret.

“Shale gas is not only a continental phenomenon but a global one. You have to understand, if you go back just 10 years or so, B.C. and Alberta were starting to experience significant projected shortfalls in available conventional natural gas,” Parfitt explained. “We’ve learned to develop unconventional resources and in particular shale gas resources. The shale zones are where we can expect much of our natural gas to come from for many years.”

The practice of fracking was initially developed stateside. But Parfitt said B.C. has taken this American know-how to previously unforeseen levels. Focusing on the Montney Shale near Fort St. John and the Horn River Shale near Fort Nelson, he said it’s only been in the last 10 years we’ve seen a few things come together to allow for the gas trapped in shale zones to be extracted through lengthy horizontal wellbores. B.C., he said, is at the forefront of fracking technology.

“British Columbia is setting world records for fracking in terms of the amount of water we’re using, the amount of sand we’re pumping underground; and of course the chemicals which accounts for about half of 1 per cent to 2 per cent of all the material that’s pumped underground to facilitate the gas coming up.”

To fully appreciate the rising threat to the public’s interest, it’s important to understand how energy companies in B.C. get water currently: Most of the water they use comes from temporary permits that are issued to the companies by a provincial energy regulator, the B.C. Oil & Gas Commission (OGC).

“Energy companies are the only companies in British Columbia that get their water from anybody else other than the provincial Ministry of the Environment. Everybody else (utilities, pulp mills, etc.), whether it’s a short term permit or a license, all have to go to a provincial environmental regulator,” Parfitt continued. “The one significant caveat to that is the energy industry at this point in time can’t get access to long term water licenses.”

But the environmental degradation imposed by energy companies in B.C. doesn’t stop at water abuses. The clear-cutting of trees to build eight to 12-lane roads for diesel trucks to transport water from its source to where wellbores sit also occurs without true oversight.

“All of the land being cleared (for transport trucks) wasn’t approved by the provincial Ministry of Forests. It was approved by the Oil & Gas Commission,” Parfitt said. “When I phoned the Dawson Ministry of Forests’ district office and asked them recently how much forest had been cleared by the Oil & Gas Commission, the woman I talked to laughed and said ‘we don’t know’.”

He showed photos of different fracking wellpads in B.C. and their accompanying waste water pits that would make any self-acclaimed environmentally-minded person squirm uncomfortably. Then, describing what’s known as “the world’s biggest frack” that happened in the Horn River Basin in early 2010 northeast of Fort Nelson, he emphasized the amount of water and how it’s being used for fracking operations in B.C. is not being monitored or accounted for responsibly.

“There is no permitting for this water and there’s no public accounting for it,” he said. “They’re using a lot of water in these operations and I can tell you they’re not doing a particularly good job of tracking how much water is being used, where it’s coming from, and what they’re doing with all of the waste water that is produced at these sites.”

Taking aim at how natural gas in Canada and the U.S. is publicized, he noted we’re often told that “we have a century’s supply of natural gas from these shale sources”; that it’s an abundantly available fossil fuel source and “a clean, transitional fuel that will take us to the low-carbon economy” we allegedly all want to achieve.

But add up all the energy required to produce it and fracking is probably the equivalent to burning coal. “Huge amounts of energy are required to get this gas from underground. There’s methane leaks associated with gas production which is a very potent greenhouse gas that we ought to be concerned about.”

Of the lack of strategy and policy for what’s to be done with contaminated waste water, he noted “there’s only two ways to deal with the waste water: pump it deep, down into the earth which is the preferred option right now in northern British Columbia. Or you treat it,” he said.

However there is a third option available and Parfitt said the natural gas industry was “being quite innovative in this regard in British Columbia” and that’s to reuse the waste water. “That is happening but it needs to happen a lot more.”

On the subject of shale gas regulation and water allocation in B.C., he said “there’s an absolute surge in water approvals by the B.C. Oil & Gas Commission and they’re happening largely out of sight and out of mind.

“Generally speaking, both the industry and the provincial energy regulator alike downplay the amount of water that’s being used and they downplay any significant environmental impacts.”

He also criticized the lack of mainstream media coverage on this issue. As if on cue, the Globe & Mail published an article on Mar. 18th trumpeting EnCana Corp.’s inclusion with a group of U.S. companies to build a West Coast natural gas terminal that “would help re-draw the map of energy production in Canada”. There was no mention of the concerns raised by Parfitt in the Globe article.

It’s tough to have meaningful democracy when governments are so closely connected with industry that corporate interests are placed ahead of the public’s interests. But that’s what’s alleged to be happening in B.C. under the BC Liberal Party government despite its claim that this province is a leader on climate action in Canada.

One has to wonder why B.C.’s new interim premier Christy Clark appointed former EnCana CEO Gwyn Morgan as head of her transition team. Or, as stated in a recent article in The Tyee, “Gwyn Morgan’s emergence as a political advisor to BC Liberal leader and premier designate Christy Clark not only reflects the province’s growing dependence on shale gas revenue but her party’s formidable indebtedness to petro politics.”

Tie in the ongoing efforts to modernize B.C.’s Water Act and the issue seemingly becomes more complicated.

In a March 2011 Common Ground article it stated, “B.C.’s Water Act ‘modernization’ is just another initiative that pays lip service to protecting the environment and the public interest while delivering the goods to the large corporate interests that have long dominated the province. What’s most dangerous about this proposal is that it will privatize water in a way that becomes effectively irreversible.”

In Parfitt’s view, modern, provincial water legislation is required.

“There is at present no licensing of groundwater withdrawals in British Columbia. I, for one, would like to see some aspects of the proposed water modernization process continued because we desperately need groundwater legislation in this province,” he said. “If the Water Act modernization process should deliver that to us, that’s something we should all be encouraged about.”


Follow Lahey on Twitter: @LiamLahey