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:

You are what you eat…

If the saying is true, it may be time for a change in diet. Or, for residents of states affected by shale gas drilling such as Colorado, Louisiana, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania or Texas, a change of address. A study by veterinarian Michelle Bamberger and molecular medicine professor Robert Oswald sheds light on the risks posed to animal and human health by hydraulic fracturing occurring on farmland by conducting interviews with animal owners in the above listed six states. The cases documented in their 2012 paper involve farms located near high volume hydraulic fracturing wells.

Hydraulic fracturing requires a toxic cocktail of chemicals and water, present at the injection site and persisting in wastewater. Among the numerous deadly chemicals hydraulic fracturing fluid contains are petroleum hydrocarbons and quaternary ammonium compounds, both reported to cause lesions in the lung, liver, kidneys,intestines and trachea. Oswald and Bamberger outline the species affected by these chemicals and chronicle the damage and impairment they undergo. Among the impacted species are white tailed deer, cows, fish and poultry, commonly subject to reproductive issues and sudden death since the arrival of shale gas wells (Bamberger and Oswald, 2012).

The most widely affected species in this study, the cow, demonstrates the excruciating degree of harm hydraulic fracturing operations inflict. Exposure to dangerous chemicals utilized in fracking occur in many ways, the most common being exposure through affected ponds or creaks due to wastewater leakage or improper fencing of waste impoundments. Exposure also occurs due to pipeline leaks, compressor station malfunction and well flaring. In an extreme case, direct exposure to fracking fluid occurred when a worker shut down a chemical blender during the fracturing process, releasing fluids into a nearby cow pasture resulting in the death of 17 cows in one hour.Typically, exposure to hydraulic fracturing fluids results in death 1-3 days post exposure (Bamberger and Oswald, 2012).

The most common health impact on cattle when exposed to hydraulic fracturing fluids results in reproductive issues. This manifests in several ways, including an increase in stillborn calves, often with congenital abnormalities. Other causes of death include respiratory failure, circulatory collapse, and acute liver or kidney failure. The role played by hydraulic fracturing in the impairment and death of numerous herds of cattle cannot be denied. In a particular case, one farmer had his cows separated into two pastures, one with a creek and one without. Of the 60 cows exposed to the creek water where wastewater had been dumped, 21 died and 16 failed to reproduce. All of the cows in the separate field were unaffected (Bamberger and Oswald, 2012).

Also included in the study are companion animals such as dogs, cats, llamas and horses. The most frequent incident of exposure for these animals occurs when contaminated water is consumed from a well, spring creek or pond. This results most commonly in reproductive and neurological problems as well as gastrointestinal and dermatological issues. In one case documented by Oswald and Bamberger, a previously healthy female dog gave birth to 15 puppies; of which 7 were stillborn, and 8 died within 24 hours. All of which were born with a complete or partial absence of hair(Bamberger and Oswald, 2012).

The severe effects of hydrofracking fluid are not restricted to animals. Toxicology tests were conducted on the owners of companion animals and farm animals, and the results are not coincidental. Commonly occurring in residents in proximity to shale gas wells is arsenic poisoning, with symptons of severe abdominal pain, backache and fatigue. Arsenic is a naturally occurring substance in shale, and is surfaced during hydraulic fracturing through wastewater. The negligent storing of wastewater and dumping into creeks and ponds results in arsenic poisoning. Long term effects of arsenic poisoning include peripheral neuropathy in humans and partial paralysis and fetal death in animals (Bamberger and Oswald, 2012).

The results from this study help us to understand the extreme effects of hydraulic fracturing on both animal and human health. This is of growing concern as fracking operations accelerate and drilling companies refuse to disclose all of the dangerous chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluid, furtively declaring the contents to be a “trade secret”. For humans there is concern both for residents of these affected states, as well as the greater population consuming meat that may have been exposed. In many cases, food producing animals are not tested for contaminants before slaughter, while farms in areas testing positive for air and water contamination do not test meat or dairy products before consumption. A possible solution suggested by Bamberger and Oswald is increased funding for food safety research to protect ourselves from further harm. In order to reduce the suffering of livestock as well, greater efforts are required to adequately deal with wastewater. Metal containers have been proposed as an alternative to open air impoundments that have had a disastrous history of leaking into farmland (Bamberger and Oswald, 2012).

The contamination associated with hydraulic fracturing has infiltrated every necessary aspect of human survival. It is in our water, in our air, on our land and in our food. If the extraction and provision of oil remains a priority, the menu for survival may be up for revision.

Fracking Farmland 615px

Sources and further reading:
Bamberger, M., Oswald, R. (2012). Impacts of Gas Drilling on Human and Animal Health. Scientific Solutions. 22 (1). pg 51-77. http://www.psehealthyenergy.org/data/Bamberger_Oswald_NS22_in_press.pdf

Drinking dollars?

Image retrieved from http://ecowatch.com/2014/06/16/wyoming-fracking-water-contamination-investigation/

Pavillion, WY resident Louis Meeks’ holds up well water containing methane gas, hydrocarbons, lead and copper, according to the EPA’s test results in this 2013 photo. Photo credit: Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica

In 1990, residents of Pavillion, Wyoming first began to notice something was wrong with their water. Oil wells in backyards were causing tap water to turn black and taste like gas. Over 20 years later, in 2011, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally made the connection between fracking and groundwater contamination (Zeidel et. al, 2011). Residents in Pavillion living on sites of wells drilled by oil giant Encana complained of foul smelling and undrinkable water in 2008, spurring the EPA to begin conducting tests. The EPA drilled wells of their own in the area and discovered the water tested was highly alkaline and contained large concentrations of potassium and chloride as well as synthetic chemicals, petroleum hydrocarbons and traces of diesel fuel (Zeidel et. al, 2011). The presence of these chemicals was linked to problems with the cementing of the casing used to line the wells, thus allowing the fracturing fluid to penetrate well water supplies (Zeidel et al, 2011). As a result, residents of Pavillion have experienced neurological impairment, loss of smell and nerve pain (Lustgarten, 2011).

Spokesman of Encana Doug Hock maintains that there is low probability that fracking has led to water pollution, however hydraulic fracturing is an inherently dangerous process, posing threats to water supply at all levels of production. Fracking only one well requires enough water to fill seven olympic sized swimming pools (Deveau, 2014). The extraction phase of the process requires water to be mixed with a toxic swill of chemicals (Deveau, 2014). During the injection process, fluids can leak to other areas. Leakoff, if not controlled, causes the injected fluids to leak into drinking water aquifers (Palliser, 2012).

After injection, the internal pressure of the rock formation causes the fluid to return to the surface. (Palliser, 2012). This is called flowback, a liquid containing both the injected chemicals as well as naturally occurring materials such as hydrocarbons, brines, metals and radio nuclides (Palliser, 2012). In order to be disposed of, flowback is often injected underground, or treated and reused at wastewater treatment plants. Problems occur with each method. In Ohio, the disposal capacity is being threatened by expanding flowback from Marcellus, a major fracking development in Pennsylvania. These limitations in disposal have led to the proposal of shipping brine waste to be deposited in the Gulf Coast (Downing, 2013). Furthermore, waste treatment plants used by fracking developments to treat and reuse wastewater are not equipped to remove contaminants such as chlorides and radio nuclides before the water is returned to rivers (Palliser, 2012).

Cases such as those in Wymoing illustrate the need for further control in the process of hydraulic fracturing if operations are intended to continue. A study by an endocrinologist in the U.S reveals that 75% of the chemicals used to frack disrupt sensory organs and the respiratory gastrointestinal system (Deveau, 2014).Given these statistics, the denial of fracking as a cause of groundwater contamination by companies such as Encana is extremely irresponsible, ultimately prioritizing economic growth over human and environmental health. This blunder is sure to become an issue of devastating proportions as we eventually discover that we cannot in fact drink our dollars.

Sources and further reading:

  • Palliser, J. (2012). Fracking fury.Science Scope, 35(7), 20-24. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/927534588?accountid=13876
  • Deveau, JL. (2014). How to Fight Fracking. Alternatives Journal. Retrieved from: http://search.proquest.com.libproxy1.nus.edu.sg/docview/1508764319?pq-origsite=summon
  • Zeidel, M., O’Neil, L. (2011).US EPA Makes Connection Between Fracking and Water Pollution. The Oil Daily(c) 2011 Energy Intelligence Group.  http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-274587263.html

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

1522101_914188531948962_7951746783244894716_n

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