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:

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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

Putting out Fire with Fire : Fracking and Flammable Water

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Substantial scientific evidence has revealed strong linkages between hydraulic fractring activity and groundwater contamination. This has manifested throughout the United States in the form of neurological and reproductive damage, severely ailing livestock and visibly polluted tap water, to name a few. However, more dramatic indicators of the dangers associated with fracking have been documented in Dimock, Pennsylvania, located in the natural gas mecca of the Marcellus Shale. In Dimock, contaminated water can be identified through a simple yet dangerous home science experiment, involving a match held to a running tap. If the water is indeed contaminated, the bizarre phenomenon of a stream of water bursting into flame provides clear evidence of traces of methane.

Flammable tap water in Dimock has been linked to traces of methane detected in drinking water wells. A study conducted by Duke University explores the connection between hydraulic fracturing and water contamination in the Marcellus Shale area by testing drinking water wells in proximity to natural gas wells. Findings from this study reveal that the type of gas detected at high levels in the water was the same type of gas that the drilling companies were extracting (Lustgarten, 2011). This indicates that the gas may be seeping underground through the fractures created during the hydraulic fracturing process, in addition to any other natural or man-made crevasses (Lustgarten, 2011). Of the wells tested closest to the gas wells, water samples on average contained 17 times the levels of methane detected in wells further from drilling, further illustrating the connection between drilling and contamination (Lustgarten, 2011).

Incidents of methane contamination have been widely experienced in gas drilling areas including Colorado and Ohio in addition to Pennsylvania. In all cases, residents concluded that there had been no issue with contamination prior to the onset of drilling operations. In an attempt to deflect accusations, gas companies have attributed the cause of methane infiltration to natural causes. Biogenic, naturally occurring methane, can be detected in water samples from fracking sites. However, samples collected during the Duke investigation indicated high concentrations of thermogenic methane, which is derived from the same hydrocarbon layers where gas drilling is targeted, thus again proving the direct link between hydraulic fracturing and contamination (Lustgarten, 2011).

Residents of Dimock, PA., are among those who have witnessed the dramatic and perilous effects of methane contamination. A drinking water well on the property of local resident Norma Fiorentino provides an example of the damages resulting from drilling. In this case, stray gas from a nearby gas well had worked its way into crevasses within the rock, gradually leaking upwards into the aquifer and eventually into her well. A spark created by a motorized pump inside the well house triggered an explosion due to the build up of fumes within (Lustgarten, 2009). This is not a singular phenomenon in Dimock, where many drinking water wells have exploded under the operation of Cabot Oil & Gas. In one case, a local resident was advised to “open a window if he planned to take a bath” due to the build up of methane in his well (Lustgarten, 2009). A particularly treacherous explosion in Cleveland, OH resulted in the lifting of a house clear off the ground due to gas build up in the basement. Investigation into this explosion revealed the at fault party to be a nearby drilling company that had failed to adequately build protective concrete casing, while continuing to operate the well (Lustgarten, 2009).

Methane becomes dangerous when it evaporates out of water and into people’s homes. At this point it becomes flammable, and also can cause suffocation to those who breathe it. Concentrations of methane can cause headaches, nausea, brain damage and eventually death (Lustgarten, 2011). In poverty stricken areas, such as Dimock, residents saw the arrival of hydraulic fracturing operations as a blessing, delivering them from their financial woes. However, as improper protective measures continue and the destructive process causes stray gas to seep into drinking water wells, residents are faced with the dilemma of sacrificing their economic wellbeing, or their health.

The following video portrays some of the impacted residents of Dimock, PA due to persistent gas drilling by Cabot Oil and Gas:

This video emphasizes the extreme effects of methane infiltration in drinking water:

Sources and Further Reading:

Lustgarten, A. (2009). Officials in Three States Pin Water Woes on Gas Drilling. ProPublica.
http://www.propublica.org/article/officials-in-three-states-pin-water-woes-on-gas-drilling-426

Lustgarten, A. (2011). Scientific Study Links Flammable Drinking Water to Fracking. ProPublica. http://www.propublica.org/article/scientific-study-links-flammable-drinking-water-to-fracking by Abrahm Lustgarten

Fractured Ground: Fracking Linked to Earthquake Activity

Ohio-earthquake-fracking-wellsAs the adverse effects associated with hydraulic fracturing grow more apparent in human, animal and environmental health, so too do they become of growing concern for the earth as a whole. The process of fracking is inherently destructive, jeopardizing the health of ecosystems and their inhabitants at every phase. The effects of the toxic slew of chemicals when injected into the earth do not just affect health, but have also been linked to the advent of low magnitude earthquakes.

Considering the disruptive nature of the process, involving the drilling of a vertical well many kilometers beneath the earth’s surface, followed by directionally drilling horizontally to expose shale to fracturing fluids, the resulting increase in seismic activity near fracking sites may not come as a surprise. Studies exploring the connection between hydraulic fracturing and earthquake activity have determined the cause of the quakes to be both the initial injection of fracturing fluids, and more commonly, the reinjection of wastewater.

The injection of fluids into the earth’s subsurface in the initial phase of fracking can lubricate existing fault zones, helping adjoining rocks to slip along the fault boundary (Palliser, 2012). This movement that the fluids facilitate, results in an earthquake. Earthquakes also occur as a result of the reinjection of wastewater fluids into sandstone at a depth equal to that of the original well causing slippages of faults at the injection site (Fischetti, 2012).

This correlation between fracking activity and seismic activity is evident in Oklahoma, witnessing an increase in the number of earthquakes occurring near hydraulic fracturing sites due to both drilling and waste injection (Clary, 2015). Further research into the causes and effects of these earthquakes has been linked to the operations of four Oklahoma high volume wastewater wells, resulting in earthquake activity up to 35 kilometers away (Clary, 2015). Studies linked to Oklahoma’s recent burst in seismic activity, including several earthquakes of over 3.0 magnitude within the first half of 2014, has led to the conclusion that earthquake events such as these can produce seismic events near wastewater wells “even a hemisphere away” (Clary, 2015).

Oklahoma is not the only state experiencing the groundshaking effects of fracking. In December 2011, the state of Ohio was shaken by two earthquakes occurring within .8 kilometers from the hydraulic fracturing injection well. Earlier that year, nine earthquakes shook the state between March and November, all within an 8 kilometer radius of a wastewater injection well. It is estimated that Ohio will continue to experience earthquakes, even if fracking operations are suspended due to the destructive process of wastewater disposal (Fischetti, 2012).

Sources and Further Reading:

a timeline of success

In light of the 2015 Scottish ban on fracking developments, introductions to the other members of the slowly growing frack-free society are in order:

  • Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 2010 
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 2012
  • Broadview Heights, Mansfield, Oberlin and Yellow Springs, Ohio, in 2012 
  • Cantabria, Spain, in 2013
  • Hawai’i County in 2013 
  • Dallas, Texas, in 2013
  • Mora County, New Mexico in 2014
  • Beverly Hills, Santa Cruz, San Benito and Mendocino Counties, California, in 2014
  •  Denton, Texas, in 2014
  • Athens, Ohio, in 2014
  • Boulder, Colorado extends 2012 ban in 2014
  • New York State: first state to ban fracking in December 2014 
  • Fracking is also currently prohibited in GermanyNorthern IrelandFrance and Bulgaria.

http://keeptapwatersafe.org/global-bans-on-fracking/

Scotland and the path towards a fracking free future

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On January 29th, 2015, Scotland became part of a small but mighty international community, joining the list of countries and communities that have banned fracking.  Energy minister Fergus Ewing announced a moratorium on granting planning consents for fracking developments due to concerns surrounding both environmental and public health (fuelfix).

The Scottish Green Party has been campaigning against unconventional gas extraction since 2011, and it appears their voices have been heard. In a briefing article published in December, the party released a simplistic breakdown of the issues surrounding fracking in the UK. Among these are concerns for local pollution and health, as well as the risks of slowing the movement towards a low carbon economy, diverting money from renewable energy technologies. The dense population of the UK amplifies health concerns, while within a broader context of the European Union further complications arise. Due to the fixed price of gas within the EU wide market, the extraction of shale gas will have no effect on reducing gas prices, as is the motivation behind fracking in the U.S. Given the multifaceted nature of the effects of fracking, the economic benefits do not outweigh the harm (Scottish Greens).

In his speech regarding the moratorium, Ewing announced the launching of a full public consultation exploring the impacts on the environment and health. During this time, no fracking plans will be granted consent until technical work has been carried out on planning, environmental regulation and assessment of health impacts (The Herald Scotland).

The implementation of this indefinite ban is undoubtedly a vital step towards a low carbon economy and greater climate stability, however MSPs of the Scottish Green Party are not fully satisfied. Further action is urged by the Scottish Greens to ensure progress is made, including provision of funding for local authorities to develop stringent policies to handle fracking applications. A petition has been circulated calling on the UK Government to halt the granting of fracking licenses across Scotland. In addition, the Scottish Greens are urging the government to speed up planned upgrades to the national grid to allow for the implementation of renewable energy schemes. Alison Johnston, MSP of the Scottish Greens warns the moratorium falls short of a full ban, asserting that the Party will not rest until fully satisfied (Scottish Greens).

Information retrieved from:
http://www.heraldscotland.com/politics/scottish-politics/ewing-announces-fracking-ban-in-scotland.1422459054

http://www.scottishgreens.org.uk/category/news/

http://fuelfix.com/blog/2015/02/02/scotland-adds-to-fracking-bans/

Scottish Greens unconventional oil and gas briefing: http://www.scottishgreens.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2014/12/Unconventional-oil-and-gas-SGP-briefing-Central-Belt.pdf