Hydraulic Fracturing

“Fracking” has become a popular buzzword since the natural gas industry emerged as a major global player in energy economies. New technologies in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have opened up access to deep underground shale deposits, exponentially increasing the amount of available natural gas in North America. Internationally, the market demand for natural gas is increasing, especially in Asia, leading to unconventional natural gas drilling at remarkable rates. There are major concerns and gaps in the information available to the public on fracking, particularly in Manitoba.

What is Hydraulic Fracturing (Fracking)?

Hydraulic fracturing or “Fracking” is a technique that involves the injection of millions of litres of water and thousands of litres of unidentified chemicals underground at extremely high pressure in order to create fractures in the underlying shale rock formations and extract the natural gas below the surface. New horizontal drilling technology allows companies access to shale deposits that have traditionally been beyond the reach of conventional vertical drilling. The combination of fracking and horizontal drilling has greatly expanded the natural gas potential in North America. Fracking for unconventional gas is rapidly expanding in almost every province across Canada.

Hydraulic fracturing is a process used in nine out of 10 natural gas wells in the United States, where millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are pumped underground to break apart the rock and release the gas.

Scientists are worried that the chemicals used in fracturing may pose a threat either underground or when waste fluids are handled, stored or sometimes spilled on the surface.

Many groups, including the International Panel for Climate Change, the International Energy Association, government boards, stakeholders in the oil and gas sector, and business people are excited about the potential prospects fracking could bring to their communities. Horizontal drilling has opened up a market for unconventional gas which has led to burgeoning economic opportunities for North America (Atkinson et al. 2012, Barclay 2012, Sica 2013). There has been an increase in job opportunities directly on drilling sites and in the relational job market. Communities in the vicinity of extraction sites have seen a boost in local economies, as the number of people passing through the area has increased.

The controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing is facing mounting opposition across the country as the potential for environmental catastrophe increases. A new Environics Research poll commissioned by the Council of Canadians has found that 62% of Canadians support “a moratorium on all fracking for natural gas until all the federal environmental reviews are complete”.

Is Fracking Occurring in Manitoba?

Yes, hydraulic fracturing is occurring in Manitoba and has been for over two decades (Welch 2013). Although it may not be a new technique, the mega-scale at which fracking is currently occurring at is historically unheard of. Southwestern Manitoba lies over top of the Bakken shale formation, which extends into Saskatchewan and down into North Dakota. So far, the Southwestern corner of the province has seen the most fracking activity, with an epicenter in the town of Virden.  In 2013, 600 new wells were drilled using horizontal techniques in Manitoba (LeNeveu 2013). Currently the price of natural gas is low due to the massive glut being produced in the United States, so the majority of drilling in Manitoba is for oil. The natural gas is considered a by-product and the sour gas is flared off or vented.

Oil and Gas companies working in Manitoba: Nordic Oil and Gas Ltd, Tundra Oil and Gas Partnership, Spearing Service LTD., Robert B. Somerville Co. Limited, USR, EOG Resources Canada Inc., Pennwest Petroleum Ltd., ARC Resources Ltd., Canadian Natural Resources Limited, Fort Calgary Resources Ltd., Reliable Energy Ltd., Legacy Oil and Gas Inc., Red Beds Resources Ltd., Surge Energy Inc.

What regulations affect Fracking in Manitoba?

The Manitoba Surface Rights Act: In Manitoba, as in most of Canada, landowners only own the rights to the surface of their land, not the mineral rights. The province annually auctions off the mineral rights of the land to the highest bidder. Whoever wins the mineral rights to an area must first come to an agreement with whoever holds the surface rights before they can begin to drill. If a landowner does not wish to have drilling occurring under their land, they can appeal to the provincially run Surface Rights Board.

Species At Risk Act (S.A.R.A.): According to the Manitoba Conservation Data Center. Southwest Manitoba is the location of the threatened mixed-grass prairie, where five known globally endangered and threatened species are endemic. This area is also prone to droughts and the economy is primarily driven by agricultural activities.

The Water Rights Act: According to Manitoba Water Stewardship, the Crown controls who uses Manitoba’s water through licensing and authorization. Permission from the Water Use Licensing Section must be obtained to use water for municipal or industrial purposes or more than 25 000 Litres per day. The oil industry currently uses under 500 dam3 per year of water (1 dam3 = 29 water trucks or half the volume of a grain elevator). The oil industry also uses produced/recycled water, as well as fresh ground water (from the Oak Lake Aquifer) and surface water (Manitoba Water Stewardship 2013)

The Oil and Gas Act: The purpose of the act is to provide safe and efficient sustainable development in Manitoba’s energy industry, prevent waste, protect the rights of owners, and to provide safe and effective construction and operation of pipelines and storage reservoirs. The act encompasses a variety of topics, but some highlights include:

  • Any person wishing to drill a well must first obtain a well license for the specific well. However, the site proposed for a well may be surveyed without a license [88 (1)(2)].
  • The Director may refuse to issue a well license if the well might cause significant adverse impact on the environment or impair the use of the surrounding land [93].
  • All salt water waste must be re-injected into an underground formation in appliance to the Salt Water Disposal Permit [109(1)].
  • It is the duty of the operators of the well to prevent spills in at all times. If a spill occurs, it is the duty of the operator or the licensee of the well to report, contain, clean up and rehabilitate the site [119(1)(2)(3)].

The Environment Act- Waste Disposal Grounds Regulations [150/91]: An outline of the solid waste guidelines in Manitoba. Although there is plenty of general information about waste disposal, there are no specific regulations regarding solid waste from oil fields in Manitoba.

Air Quality Regulations: There are currently no regulations about reporting sour gas flaring and venting in Manitoba. However, according to the Petroleum Branch of Manitoba, there are air quality objectives and guidelines that provide protection to communities and their environments including the 1-hour maximum acceptable level for Sulphur Dioxide is 0.34 ppm and 0.011 ppm for Hydrogen Sulphide.

Is natural gas a “transition fuel”?

The increase in natural gas extraction has been praised for helping Canada ease off its national dependence on foreign oil (Atkinson et al. 2012, Barclay 2012, Sica 2013). Natural gas is being marketed as the most climate friendly of the fossil fuels (Parfitt 2011). Advocates claim that fracking technology harnesses ‘cleaner, greener’ energy options (Stephenson et al. 2012). Overall, natural gas produces less greenhouse gases and particulate matter than coal and oil. Natural gas can also be extracted locally in Canada cutting down on the environmental and economic transportation costs of using energies produced across international borders.

Despite the overall decrease in greenhouse gases emissions, the combustion of natural gas consequently releases higher concentrations of methane than other fossil fuels. Methane molecules cause the most ozone damage in the smallest concentration, meaning that even a small amount of methane will contribute to climate change (Stephenson et al. 2012). Anti-Frackers claim that the environmental and human health costs have not been calculated into the price of natural gas extraction, which would make it much pricier than the current market price. Opponents of fracking insist that just like other fossil fuels, natural gas extraction is unsustainable in the long term.

Environmental Threats:

Groundwater Contamination: Fracking threatens water quality through groundwater contamination from the injections of toxic fluids near aquifers, or through the handling and spilling of contaminated waste fluids. Fluid waste contains toxic and radioactive substances known as “wastewater flowback”. Due to the secretive and competitive nature of the industry, many companies keep a portion of their flowback “recipe” private. This means that the public does not have access to all of the chemicals that are entering the subterranean ecosystem. The flowback is sometimes stored underground or treated at municipal water treatment facilities and discharged into waterways, putting drinking water supplies at risk. In Manitoba, the saline water is injected into the ground, but it is unclear where the rest of the waste is stored (LeNeveu 2013).

In Canada, many of the chemicals associated with fracking fluid, as well as methane, 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

Increased Seismic Activity: Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have been suspected in the increase of earthquakes in highly fracked areas (Prud’Homme 2014, Ellsworth 2013). Alongside the obvious detrimental effects of earthquakes, seismic activity can disturb aquifers by creating pathways for flowback, gases or substances from other geological layers to travel into groundwater layers. The water may collect arsenic, hydrocarbons and radioactivity from the shale deposit itself.

Methane Migration: Fracking projects can lower groundwater levels and reduce water pressure in nearby aquifers. This allows methane gas (a component of natural gas) to accumulate in gas bubbles that surface in shallow bodies of water or in household pipes. Methane gas is colourless and odorless and can cause explosions. There are documented cases where homeowners living near a fracked well can literally light their water on fire because of methane gas bubbles in their pipes. In Pennsylvania, Cabot Oil and Gas has been ordered to provide a fresh water supply to more than a dozen homes where water has been contaminated near fracked wells (Prud’Homme 2014, Osbourn et al. 2011, Wilbur 2012).

Drinking Water Contamination: There are hundreds of reports of drinking water contamination associated with fracking in the United States. According to a US Environmental Protection Agency study, 20 to 40 per cent of injected fluids can remain trapped in the rock formations for decades. This means the extent of water contamination is difficult to measure and may not reveal itself until decades later. (Prud’Homme 2014, Wilbur 2012, Parfitt 2011).

Local Water Depletion: Large amounts of water are required for fracking, particularly when the project is based in shale rock. This water can come from municipal sources, surface or groundwater, and often needs to be trucked in from elsewhere. Approximately 2 to 9 million gallons of water are required for a single fracking job. Much of the water becomes so contaminated it cannot return to the watershed.

Air Pollution: A University of Colorado School of Public Health study claims that air pollution resulting from hydraulic fracturing may contribute to acute and chronic health problems for those living near oil and gas drilling operations. Lisa McKenzie, et al., “Human Health Risk Assessment of Air Emissions from Development of Unconventional Natural Gas Resources,” Science of the Total Environment, March 2012. Based on three years of monitoring, the study examined effects on people living within a half-mile of wells.

According to the study, exposure to air pollutants, including benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, xylene, heptane, octane, and diethylbenzene during well-completion activities presented the greatest potential for adverse health effects. During the completion phases, the study found that the pollutants with the greatest impacts were trimethylbenzenes, aliphatic hydrocarbons and xylenes, which can purportedly cause neurological and respiratory effects such as eye irritation, headaches, sore throat, and breathing difficulties. Researchers recommend further studies that include collection of data about potential area, residential and personal exposure where wells are operating.

Sources: Council of Canadians with additional research from Kaela-Mae Hlushko

Resources

“Hydraulic Fracture Mining in Manitoba” by Trevor Semotok
No Fracking Way: Our water, health and air at risk, Canadian Perspectives, January 2014
Hydraulic Fracturing Review, Nova Scotia Department of Environment
VIDEO: Maude Barlow conversation on Fracking and Water, Institute for Advanced Study, November 30, 2011
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