Back in 2007, when Alberta landowner Jessica Ernst filed her lawsuit over water contamination from the hydraulic fracturing of shallow coal seams near her property, most Canadians had never even heard of “fracking.”
Ten years later, nearly everyone has at least heard of the controversial process of accessing oil and gas deposits.
To some, it’s an economic saviour. To others, it’s a threat to fresh water and yet another step toward climate change catastrophe. But many others don’t know what to think, especially when some provinces embrace fracking while others put a freeze on the practice.
To help you sort it out, we’ve put together this primer on what fracking really is, where it’s happening in Canada and what’s known (and not known) about the risks to the environment and human health.
What Is Fracking?
Fracking is a technique to blast a mixture of water, chemicals and sand into a well to break apart the rock formations and release previously inaccessible oil and natural gas deposits. Most fracking today is done in conjunction with horizontal drilling.
The ascent of fracking put an end to speculation that oil and gas reserves in North America were mostly tapped out (remember Peak Oil?) and led to a fracking boom in parts of the U.S. and Canada from about 2006 to 2013.
Fracking uses large amounts of fresh water — in B.C., the average frack uses between 5 million and 100 million litres of water. This can easily require more than 2,000 truck trips to deliver water, which becomes contaminated after the fracking process and must be disposed of somehow — either in tailings ponds or by being injected deep underground.
As documented in a recent five-year EPA study, leaks and spills of frack fluid have created long-term water concerns (more on that in a moment).
Fracking in Canada
In Canada, more than 200,000 wells have been horizontally fracked for shale gas or oil, primarily in the western provinces. It is now estimated that 80 per cent of new oil and gas wells in Canada are fracked. Such “unconventional” reserves exist elsewhere in Canada, but for now, a mix of geology, geography and public opposition has kept them mostly untapped.
The past few years have seen a slowdown in fracking due in large part to the drastic drop in oil prices in 2014. Yet, it wasn’t the death knell that some expected; the industry determined that by increasing efficiencies (cutting costs and getting better at picking locations to frack), fracking could still be economically feasible at $45-$50 a barrel. Some critics allege, however, that the industry is heavily indebted and is barely staying afloat.
The industry is cautiously optimistic that things are picking back up. There are currently 100 active drilling rigs in Alberta, 23 in B.C. and a small amount in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, although numbers fluctuate regularly.
The industry estimates that each rig creates about 135 jobs — 20 involved directly with fracking and 115 indirectly such as equipment suppliers and truck drivers. Critics of fracking say that the benefits to local communities are often overblown and don’t offset risks to human health and the environment.
Where is Fracking Happening in Canada?
The shale gas phenomenon in Canada has been concentrated in Alberta and northeastern B.C.
Particularly in Alberta, it’s not all about drilling new wells, as companies are increasingly fracking older wells to access what they couldn’t previously in areas such as the Duvernay formation. In 2015-2016, the Alberta government collected $493 million in revenues from natural gas activities, the majority of which involved fracking of unconventional wells. After a review of royalty rates, the provincial government decided last year to keep rates low, thus continuing to incentivize fracking.
Despite its distance from B.C.’s major population centres, the fracking zone (Montney, Horn River and Liard basins) in northeastern B.C. has been a hotbed of controversy. There have been battles over the issuing of illegal water licences, the cumulative impacts of rampant industrial development, the controversial Site C dam that has been touted as a source of power for fracking operations, and the approval of LNG plants, terminals and pipelines. If Premier Christy Clark’s dream to export liquefied natural gas in vast quantities is ever realized, the amount of fracking in B.C. could double or triple.
As opposed to the shale gas further west, fracking in both Saskatchewan and Manitoba is for shale oil, also referred to as tight oil. The Bakken oil field, which made North Dakota a global energy giant, extends into southeast Saskatchewan and a bit into southwest Manitoba. As new formations continue to be found, fracking has spread to the southwest of Saskatchewan in the Viking and Lower Shaunavon formations. As of 2015, Saskatchewan had 7,500 horizontally fracked wells.
The approach to fracking there has been likened to the “Wild West.” Unlike in British Columbia and Alberta, for example, there is no requirement in Saskatchewan or Manitoba to disclose the contents of the chemicals in the fracking fluids. There isn’t much active public opposition to fracking in either province, although last summer’s Husky Oil spill in the North Saskatchewan River has led to calls for better oversight.
Where is Fracking Banned?
There are no outright fracking bans in Canada; instead there is a mix of explicit and de facto moratoriums due to either public outcry or lack of economic feasibility due to geology.
(Fracking is banned in New York, Vermont and Maryland as well as in a number of U.S. counties and cities; Bulgaria and France have also banned the practice, it is largely banned in Germany, and Scotland is in the midst of a public consultation over whether to turn a moratorium into an outright ban.)
After long, heated campaigns, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia announced fracking moratoriums within months of each other in 2014.
In New Brunswick, the October 2013 clash between the Elsipogtog First Nation and the RCMP — resulting in six police cars torched and 40 people arrested —became a national story and galvanized the opposition. In order to lift the moratorium in New Brunswick, five conditions would need to be met, and a recent report indicates that the conditions are not close to being met.
In Nova Scotia, regulations that had been scheduled to come out in 2015 have yet to be released, so everything fracking-wise is on hold (although not for too long if Kevin O’Leary has his way).
In Newfoundland and Labrador, a fracking “pause” was set in 2013 and a government-commissioned report last year recommended specific conditions and research be required before any exploratory permits for tight oil be issued. The report also noted that fracking isn’t economically viable in that province at any price below $85 U.S. per barrel.
PEI and Ontario governments have thus far rejected calls to ban fracking, citing a lack of applications for fracking permits. Environmental groups had hopes that a draft of the new PEI Water Act released in March would include a moratorium or even a ban, but it doesn’t have either. The Ontario government has pledged to conduct a review of the practice, but that has yet to happen.
Quebec’s fracking moratorium may be the most precarious. In 2014, a de facto moratorium set two years earlier was extended indefinitely. But the passage of Bill 106 in December 2016 appears to open things up for oil and gas exploration, including fracking, although most of the regulations are yet to be announced. In addition, the Quebec government last summer announced it would allow fracking on Anticosti Island, contending that it was due to a pre-moratorium commitment.
Meantime, in the Northwest Territories, where there is a large deposit of shale oil located very far from any pipeline or road, a motion calling for a moratorium was voted down by the legislature in 2015. However, in 2014 Husky Energy withdrew its application to frack wells in the Sahtu region, so no fracking seems imminent.
Fracking was a hot topic in the Yukon during last fall’s election. The victorious Liberal Party ran on a pledge to institute a fracking moratorium which is currently in place. Environmental groups are concerned that government approvals for conventional oil and gas exploration will lead to unconventional as the majority of oil and gas reserves in the Yukon are in shale beds (that require fracking) although the government has recently confirmed no fracking will be allowed if and when oil and gas operations go ahead.
Despite calls for a national moratorium on fracking by some groups (including: Unifor, The Council of Canadians, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, numerous First Nations), prospects for it seem dim.
Is Fracking Safe?
In 2014, Environment Canada commissioned a report on fracking and the primary finding was that more research and information on potential environmental impacts are needed.
Similarly, the American Public Health Association updated its stance last year to emphasize that there is empirical evidence showing fracking causing harm to nature and people and “we have no idea what the long-term effects might be.”
With concerns over drinking water, fracking-triggered earthquakes and impacts on the landscape, a majority of Canadians oppose fracking. An Insights West poll in March 2016 found that opposition rose from 47 per cent to 61 per cent over a 30-month period.
David Gowland, manager of Alberta operations for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, says the industry doesn’t want to discount such fears, but needs to do a better job of informing the public about the “best practices” companies are deploying to mitigate risks. He says that regulations in BC and Alberta for well-bore construction, water management and pipeline construction serve as a model for other countries. Critics, however, call for tighter regulations across the fracking zone, including better baseline testing of groundwater.
Concerns About Water Contamination
Fears of water contamination have driven the opposition to fracking in Atlantic Canada and elsewhere. The concern is the mix of chemicals used in fracking — last month, researchers in Alberta found that, even when diluted considerably, fracking fluids can harm fish.
These days the biggest risks aren’t from the actual drilling, because drilling generally happens at least 1.5 km underground. Rather, the concerns are primarily over leaks of fracking fluids in cement well casings; the discharge and disposal of fracking wastewater, which has been found to contain cancer-causing chemicals and is often injected into other wells; and spills during collection, processing and transport.
These concerns were confirmed in a recent U.S. EPA report, which found examples of drinking water contamination at various stages of the fracking process, despite a recent study that found the EPA report vastly undercounted the number of fracking-related spills.
The EPA noted that “data gaps and uncertainties” limited a full assessment of the risks due in part to insufficient baseline monitoring as well as nondisclosure clauses as part of financial settlements between companies and landowners who report water problems.
The latest research indicates that fracking can trigger small-to-moderate earthquakes. The vast majority of quakes over 3.0 magnitude in the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin are caused by fracking or the injection of fracking wastewater into wells. A 4.8 magnitude quake in January 2016 in the Fox Creek area of Alberta is the largest one in Canada to date.
The industry contends that because the quakes occur so far underground, they present minimal damage risk. On the other hand, there is indication that the more than 1,000 earthquakes that have shaken B.C.’s fracking zone since 2006 have changed the region’s seismicity. There are calls for more research to assess the risk of these quakes to pipelines, dams and other infrastructure as well as how they affect the flow of groundwater and migration of gases into the atmosphere.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Fracking
While the oil and gas industry likes to tout natural gas as a cornerstone of the transition to a lower-carbon economy, fracking emits a lot of methane, via “fugitive emissions” from the fracking itself — the venting and flaring of natural gas, and pipeline leaks as it’s shipped.
In addition to it not being a good thing to have in your water, methane is many times more potent in the short term (86 times more over a 20-year period) as a planet-warming greenhouse gas than CO2, though it doesn’t last as long. This is why critics believe that any expansion of fracking (e.g. via approval of LNG terminals and plants) is incompatible with provincial and federal government climate targets.
The federal government has committed to reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 40 to 45 per cent below 2012 levels by 2025.
The future of fracking in Canada is tied in part, as it always has, to the price of oil and gas.
A big unknown is whether U.S. President Trump’s embrace of the “shale oil and gas revolution” will lead to a glut in supply that could lower prices and make fracking less financially viable in Canada. Already, the scale of fracking in the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania is pushing western Canadian shale gas out of Ontario and Quebec; as such, the industry is looking toward markets in India and other parts of Asia.
Another wildcard is the possibility of a “border adjustment tax” imposed by the U.S. on imports, although that seems increasingly unlikely to happen, at least for the oil and gas sector.
Politics will also be a factor. Fracking moratoriums made by executive orders, such as in New Brunswick, are more fragile than those that are legislated, and the very nature of moratoriums makes them much more precarious than a ban.
As the science begins to catch up with the technology deployed for more than a decade, gaps in data and knowledge about the health impacts of the technology will increasingly be filled.
For instance, indigenous energy researcher Caleb Behn, subject of the documentary Fractured Land, is involved with an academic study that researches long-term impacts of fracking on indigenous health — specifically reproductive health and cancer potential — in northeastern B.C., an issue he says that has been “inadequately” studied.
Another long-term issue is who pays for post-fracking cleanup. While cement seals tend to degrade in all wells, fracked wells are particularly prone to leaks. Because repairing a leaky well is very expensive, some companies find it cheaper to keep paying lease fees for inactive wells instead of paying to reclaim them. The number of abandoned (“orphaned”) oil wells is on the rise, raising concerns that as fracking companies go out of business, taxpayers will end up footing a sizable bill.
Image: A fracking drill rig near Fort St. John, B.C. Photo: Garth Lenz/DeSmog Canada