Bringing It All Back Home: Fracking in Alberta

The Kakwa River, Grande Prairie AB. Taken by my friend and co-worker, Marine Lefebvre.

The Kakwa River, Grande Prairie AB. Taken by my friend and co-worker, Marine Lefebvre.

Canada is reputed as a hotspot for the oil and gas industry, with fossil fuels forming a cornerstone of Canadian economic growth. This is broadly regarded as a positive aspect of our country, however, to me and many other Canadians, the opportunities associated with oil and gas are nothing in comparison to the irreversible damage the industry inflicts upon the vast wilderness Canada is known for. Through this blog, I wanted to learn more about this issue that is so contentious among Canadians, and shed light upon the dangers of hydraulic fracturing that are so often concealed by industry giants.

In Alberta, Canada’s crowing jewel of industry, extensive fracking operations have resulted in the endangering of several species, and the onset of a series of record breaking earthquakes. Recently in Fox Creek Alberta, a quake of a magnitude of 4.4 shook the region, an area where felt earthquakes are very uncommon (Nikiforuk, 2015). As discussed previously, fracking has been linked to increased seismic activity, and intensive drilling in this region by companies Encana, Chevron Canada and ExxonMobile provide proof of this correlation. Neighbouring operations in British Columbia have introduced a “seismic traffic system” that ensures operations are shut down if an earthquake grater than 4.0 is felt (Nikiforuk, 2015). However, in Alberta there is no such policy and fracking operations continue to accelerate.

A new drilling operation that had been constructed near our camp between 2013 and 2014.

A new drilling operation constructed near our treeplanting camp in Grande Prairie between 2013 and 2014.

In Alberta, I have seen firsthand the destruction of the environment as a result of the oil and gas industry, and have also been subject to the withholding of information that oil companies practice in order to accelerate operations. For the past two years, I have spent my summers working for a reforestation company in Grande Prairie, located in the north western Alberta. Upon arriving in Grande Prairie, I was instantly overwhelmed by the prevalence of industry in both the city and the surrounding area. In Grande Prairie, you can drive 20 minutes in any direction and spot at least one oil rig. The city itself exists solely for the purpose of off shift oil riggers, a pure industry town similar to Bradford, Pennsylvania in its heyday. When I returned to Grande Prairie for my second summer of treeplanting,  I was astounded to see how much industry had accelerated within the eight months I had been away. New rigs had popped up where forests had been, and more lease fires flaring out from newly developed operations could be spotted in the distance at night. Most shocking to me that summer however, was the direct impact the industry had upon our camp when a new fracking operation was undertaken by oil company Seven Generations.

Treeplanting camp in Grande Prairie, AB. Taken by Marine Lefebvre.

Treeplanting camp in Grande Prairie, AB. Taken by Marine Lefebvre.

Our camp where we stayed during the treeplanting season was situated along the Kakwa River, about an hour outside of Grande Prairie. A few weeks into the planting season, we received news that we would have to leave our camp as the location had been zoned for use by Seven Generations (7G). After much protesting with the company, we ended up sharing the land with 7G as we had no other location to base our operations. So, our camp became home to a constant stream of 40,000 liter tank trucks trailing in and out with water pumped out of the Kakwa. A large pump was installed at the river bank, that allowed water to be pumped out and into the trucks 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This was disruptive to us as the pump was loud and the trucks required floodlights to be on at all hours. We were told the water was used to run through rigs as a cooling mechanism, however many of us had our suspicions that the water was for fracking purposes. This lead me to further research the operations carried out by 7G and in turn for the purpose of this module, explore the associated effects.

Without having to delve far into research, I discovered the true purpose of 7G’s invasion of our camp from a report on drilling operations located on the Montney Shale formation of British Columbia and Alberta:

“At its Kakwa River project in Alberta, “7G” has demonstrated its expertise in applying directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing completions technology to develop its tight liquids rich gas resource. The company reported its second quarter production at 24,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day.” (Gault, 2014).

It appears that during our first weeks of frack-free peace at the Kakwa, 7G had been busy coming to an agreement with Schlumberger Canada that provided the company with the “spread” to be deployed at a new project at the Kakwa River. The spread is a term used to describe the equipment required to blend and pump the chemical concoction used to frack gas bearing rock.  Shortly after provision of this spread, 7G arrived at our camp and began extensive pumping of water from the river (CNW, 2014).

Treeplanters enjoying the Kakwa River before the arrival of 7G operations.  Taken by Marine Lefebvre.

Treeplanters enjoying the Kakwa River before the arrival of 7G operations.
Taken by Marine Lefebvre.

Now that I am more informed of the dangers of the fracking process, I am deeply concerned to see the state of the Kakwa river ecosystem upon my return to Grande Prairie in May. I am also assuming to see a greater acceleration of industry operations throughout the region as I have previously observed. However, through research conducted for this blog, I now feel as though I can see through the deceptions the oil companies supply us with, and I have grasped the severity of the situation in Canada. I hope to inform my co-workers and friends of the dangers of fracking to foster awareness that can help others make informed political decisions regarding the health of our country. The current government in Canada is exacerbating the already critical state of the environment in Canada, and I can only hope that growing awareness among Canadians of the irreversibility of these actions can contribute to the formation of a more responsible government.

According to Henry David Thoreau, complacency is one of democracy’s greatest weaknesses. We can no longer afford to be complacent.
Sources and Further Reading:

The Dried Up Legacy of Fossil Fuels: Part 2

Aerial view of fracking operations in the United States. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bianca-jagger/fracking-must-be-banned_b_3933571.html

Aerial view of fracking operations in the United States. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bianca-jagger/fracking-must-be-banned_b_3933571.html

From Bradford County we see the path many communities throughout the United States and Canada have been spiraling towards over the past 65 years of fracking activity. However, the effects of fracking are not confined to the level of county, state or even nation. The fracking process heavily contributes to global climate change, particularly due to the frequency of incidences of methane leaks, a greenhouse gas that has 86 times the warming potential of CO2 (Kelly, 2014). The effects of fracking exist on both an individual and transboundary level, signifying the necessity for action to overturn the dire legacy of fossil fuels.

Various solutions to fracking have been proposed with regards to water treatment in an attempt to minimize risks associated with waste water fluids. Among these solutions are systems such as mobile integrated treatments (ITS) that utilize dissolved air flotation to separate solids from waste streams. Another proposal involves an absorbent form of silica engineered to remove nearly all petro chemicals from water produced by hydraulic fracturing in shale gas wells (McMahon, 2011).

A different approach taken to mitigating the destructive trail left by fracking is the employment of plasma pulse technology (PPT), a new technology that omits the use of harmful chemicals (Burgess, 2014). Plasma pulse technology is described as an environmentally friendly way to clear sedimentation from well drainage areas to allow the oil and gas within the rock to flow. This is achieved through the use of electrically generated plasma impulses to reduce the viscosity of the oil, increase permeability and improve the flow of gas and oil to the surface (Burgess, 2014). Tests conducted on this new technology have been successful so far, and it appears PPT is ready to be applied as a mediator between the oil and gas industry and environmentalists in resolving issues associated with fracking.

In response to concerns surrounding air pollution, the United States Environmental Protection Agency issued a new set of rules regarding the monitoring of unregulated fracking sites in 2012. Mandatory compliance among oil and gas companies with these new regulations is intended to result in a major reduction of emissions in methane and volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) from newly fracked wells (Focus, 2012).Progress has been slow, and has taken 3 years to phase in control measures. However, the new regulations have made “green completion” of wells mandatory for the oil and gas industry as a primary tool for controlling the emissions produced by newly fractured wells. Green completion requires a reduction in emissions from equipment such as processing plants, storage tanks and pipeline compressors. Industry compliance is essential to the success of this program and as such various reporting is required of the industry on a frequent basis. This project is estimated to cut 95% of VOCs emitted from 11,400 newly fracked and 1400 re-fracked wells in the United States (Focus, 2012). However, many environmentalists remain unsatisfied, for example climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians Jeremy Nichols, who states that the work is not close to being done (Focus, 2012). According to Nichols, these new regulations will not fully protect people against hazardous air pollutants, and more stringent requirements for monitoring and repairing pipeline leaks and defects must be implemented in order to make positive change (Focus. 2012).

We have seen advances in technology and regulation as a means of reigning in the destructive effects of fracking, yet many still remain dissatisfied and the state of the environment and health continues to decline. What else can be done? An obstacle in ensuring the health of residents of highly fracked regions is a lack of awareness of the associated risks. In areas such as Pavilion, Wyoming, and Dimock, Pennsylvania, many residents were not aware of the risks posed by fracking operations until their water ran black or their drinking water wells exploded. This is entirely the fault of the oil and gas industry and false press regarding the danger of fracking. For example, in Dimock, PA., where residents have discovered their tap water can be lit on fire, spokesperson of oil company Cabot George Stark states “from the fracking standpoint, we don’t believe the process is contaminating the groundwater. As a technology, it’s proven and safe” (Lustgarten, 2011). False assertions such as this are commonly issued by oil and gas companies in an attempt to protect their operations. In fact, many drilling operations refuse to disclose all of the dangerous chemicals used in the fracking fluid  under the excuse that it is a “trade secret” (Bamberger and Oswald, 2012). What is needed is transparency among oil and gas companies and the public. People need to know the risks associated with the process, and major industries must disclose fracking chemicals used in order to avoid irreversible damage to health.

The oil giants are a force to be reckoned with, particularly from the standpoint of local communities who’s lives have been turned upside down by the fracking boom. However, action can be taken at the community level to fight fracking, as seen in the province of New Brunswick where town action has served to create a model that provides other communities with guidelines to stand up for themselves. Community level tools include counter campaigns and town hall meetings to discuss plans with residents and ensure awareness among all, public education campaigns, the building of a resistance network, gathering of reinforcements, strategic court participation, documenting of the conflict and improving voter turn out (Deveau, 2104). With these tools, communities can have their voices heard and take an active stance in securing a future more sustainable than that of Bradford County.

Map showing current and prospective shale gas drilling operations in North America. http://euanmearns.com/what-is-the-real-cost-of-shale-gas/

Map showing current and prospective shale gas drilling operations in North America. http://euanmearns.com/what-is-the-real-cost-of-shale-gas/

Sources and Further Reading:

The Dried Up Legacy of Fossil Fuels: Part 1

Local residents in Bessemer, Pennsylvania, gathered in front of an unconventional gas well operated by Shell Oil, to protest the impacts drilling may have on farming, water, and air quality.

Local residents in Bessemer, Pennsylvania, gathered in front of an unconventional gas well operated by Shell Oil, to protest the impacts drilling may have on farming, water, and air quality.

“Where there’s a boom there’s bound to be a bust.”
The shale oil boom has resulting in the depletion and contamination of water, compromising of our health, death of organisms and ecosystems, pollution of our air and the shaking of our planet. Now, the bust. The bust leaves us with the dried up legacy of the oil and gas industry in North America where an obsession with unconventional drilling techniques plague the continent. The fracking boom throughout North America was seen as a blessing to many as a means of bolstering economic mobility and providing vast job opportunities. However, as discussed throughout the previous series of posts, these opportunities come at a severe cost, jeopardizing the health of ourselves and the environment for generations to come.

To reiterate, a major concern for communities located near intensive fracking operations is the contamination of drinking water. Water is a central issue with hydraulic fracturing, compromising the health and safety of groundwater reserves both at the initial injection phase of toxic fracturing fluids, and again during the reinjection of contaminated waste water. The severe effects of this have been discussed using examples from Pavilion, Wyoming where the Environmental Protection Agency discovered high levels of benzene, acetone and diesel, among other toxins, present in water samples (Palliser, 2012). Contamination of water also occurs above ground due to improper practices by oil and gas workers resulting in fluid spills and runoff into rivers and nearby ecosystems, with detrimental effects on livestock and surrounding species. The interconnected nature of water contamination is devastating to humans and the environment due to the irreversibility of the damage. As stated by Canadian geologist David Hughes, “Once water is used for fracking, it is lost to the water cycle forever.”

In addition to water contamination, fracking has contributed negatively to several other aspects of environmental and human health; including increasing rates of air pollution and the presence of dangerous particulate matter within homes near operations (McMahon, 2014). In addition, in the United States a report released in Congress in 2011 revealed that more than 650 of the chemicals used in fracking were carcinogens (Goldenberg, 2011). Furthermore, an increase in incidences of methane leaks in wells has resulted in the explosions of homes due to methane pooling, particularly along the extensively fracked Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania. Finally, as discussed previously, fracking operations have been linked to an increase in seismic activity due to both exacerbation of existing natural faults and fractures, as well as disturbance during waste water reinjection.

These issues entrenched in the operation of the oil and gas industry will continue to worsen if the current rate of drilling continues. However, in areas where hydraulic fracturing operations have been particularly extensive, such as Bradford County, PA., we see a glimpse into what the legacy of fracking leaves us. Bradford County, is one of the epicenters of oil and gas drilling in the United States. As production began to dry up in Bradford County, many wells were left abandoned as workers left in search of new prospects. The county was left desolate, with wells leaking and uncapped. As a result, the once booming town of Bradford County has experienced a significant decline in population, from about 17,000 at its peak in 1940, to 8000 currently (Kelly, 2014). The derelict remains of fracking operations in Bradford County pose serious risks to the environment and the health of the remaining residents, providing a clear picture of where the fracking boom will take us. Wells that are no longer in use are required to be plugged in order to ensure pollutants do not leak into groundwater or make there way back to the surface. This is an expensive and demanding process requiring the insertion of a cement layer between every gas, water or saline bearing rock layer underground (Kelly, 2014). This has been neglected in Bradford County, and as a result methane from abandoned wells has been migrating to the surface and pooling in people’s homes (Kelly, 2014). As presented in previous posts regarding the dangers of methane, the irresponsible abandonment of wells correlates with increased incidences of gas related home explosions in Bradford County (Kelly, 2014).

House Explosions in Bradford Pennsylvania tied to Migrating Methane Gas from Drilling Activity. retrieved from www.protectingourwaters.wordpress.com400 × 271Search by image

House Explosions in Bradford Pennsylvania tied to Migrating Methane Gas from Drilling Activity. retrieved from http://www.protectingourwaters.wordpress.com400 × 271Search by image

Bradford County paints a grim picture of the legacy we have inherited from the oil and gas industry and the direction we are rapidly heading in if hydraulic fracturing operations are not reigned in. To many, Bradford County serves as a visual reminder that where mining or drilling happens, “fossil fuel wealth burns hot and short” (Kelly, 2014).

In the next post, I will examine some of the proposed solutions and mitigation strategies to ensure we learn from the example of Bradford County.

References and Further Reading
Kelly, S. (2014). When the Shale Runs Dry: A Look at the Future of Fracking. DeSmog Blog
http://www.resilience.org/stories/2014-11-03/when-the-shale-runs-dry-a-look-at-the-future-of-fracking

McMahon, J. (2014). Air Pollution Spikes In Homes Near Fracking Wells. Forbes. http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffmcmahon/2014/06/26/air-pollution-spikes-in-homes-near-fracking-wells/

Palliser, J. (2012). Fracking fury. Science Scope, 35(7), 20-24. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/927534588?accountid=13876
Future of fracking