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British Columbia's major shale gas fields have made the province a prime location for hydraulic fracturing or 'fracking'. Fracking can also be used for accessing geothermal resources. While the process has come under public scrutiny recently, there are conflicting reports and misinformation on both the safety of the practice and what occurs. Here we analyze what exactly hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, does; where it has come from; the environmental issues; and what the use of the technology will mean for the province.
What is "fracking"?
The process of hydraulic fracturing is essentially the pumping of a liquid or gas down a well at a high enough pressure to cause the surrounding rock to fracture. A proppant, often sand, is added to the fracking fluid, which can hold the fractures open when the pressure is removed from the rock face. After the fluid has been pumped back out of the well these newly opened paths allow gas to flow from the shales into the well where they can be recovered. While the fracking process is a simple one in principle, differences in geology at the well site ensure the exact fracturing process varies.
It has been found that most types of sedimentary rocks can trap natural gas. What differentiates a conventional from unconventional reservoir is the number of connective pathways between pore spaces that allow for hydrocarbon movement. In order to form a reservoir, a rock needs to have enough large spaces between its grains for carbon can be trapped and cooked into oil or gas; this property is known as porosity. The other important factor is the permeability of the rock, or its ability to allow hydrocarbons to flow between grains. When the permeability of rock is low, yet the porosity is high enough to store hydrocarbons, hydraulic fracturing can create the needed pathways for the hydrocarbons to be released. With the movement of extracting gas from tight sands, coal beds and carbonates (a type of sedimentary rock that tends to have lower porosity and permeability) the oil and gas industry realized the importance of fracturing for making gas wells economic. As well, fracturing is used in the production of natural gas from coal and is starting to be used in the development of oil fields as an enhanced recovery technique.
To learn about the application of fracking to geothermal power development, you can read more here.
Hydraulic fracturing was first commercially implemented by Halliburton in Velma, Oklahoma in 1949 to extract gas from limestone deposits. A series of new technological developments in the 1980s such as horizontal drilling and diamond-studded drill bits, allowed developers to access gas in shale formations, leading to today's so-called "shale gale."
In the United States over 1.1 million wells have been stimulated using fracking since the technique was developed. Fracking was first used in Central Alberta Canada in the 1950s, and since then has been employed tens of thousands of times in this country. In addition to allowing access to new reserves, fracking is used to continue production from old wells once thought depleted, a technique known as recompletion.
The most common concern over the practice of fracturing shale beds is the large amount of water used. There are many potential sources of water for fracturing which include surface water, groundwater, treated wastewater and recycled water from past fracturing jobs.
While the amount of water will vary between wells due to the changes in geology and the size of the reservoir, the volumes can be immense. EnCana Corp. states that between 200,000 and 1.2 million litres of water (1/20th of an Olympic swimming pool to nearly 40 Olympic pools) is needed to complete one well. EnCana as well as Apache Corp. have developed a way to extract saline, toxic water from deep aquifers and treat the water to be used in their fracking operations.
The water that is flowed back out of the well is not safe for consumption which creates waste-water management issues. While the waste-water contains high concentrations of salts, toxic compounds and biologically disruptive compounds, it is possible to treat the water and dispose of it safely. Many of fracturing's waste water issues arise from the mishandling of the water after it has been pumped back up from the well.
There have also been many concerns over the contamination of groundwater aquifers due to hydraulic fracturing. In a report by Dr. Chip Groat from the University of Texas, he noted that the causes of contamination are not unique to fracturing, but are related to general drilling activity such as ground spills, leaking drill casings, or mishandling of waste water.
Dr. Groat also noted that for a lot of the areas where fracturing is being conducted there is not a sufficient amount of baseline data on the area to determine if the contamination has been caused by hydrocarbon production or if there is a natural source for the hydrocarbons in the water. In the 2010 movie Gasland there are images of homeowners lighting their tap water on fire, a truly terrifying prospect. In his report, Dr. Groat addressed this phenomenon specifically, stating that it is possible for tap water to be flammable; however, there is no evidence linking this to hydraulic fracturing. Acknowledging the reality of this phenomenon, Dr. Groat said that more research is needed to determine the causes of the groundwater contamination.
Along with water concerns, the relationship between fracturing and earthquakes has come under greater scrutiny in recent years. While not being directly attributed to the fracturing process, the disposal of wastewater into the subsurface is what is causing the earthquakes.
The water pumped into the subsurface can act as a lubricant on old fault surfaces allowing for slippages, earthquakes, to occur. This was determined to be the cause of magnitude 2.3 and 1.5 earthquakes in northwestern England in the spring of 2011. While being a concern that should be actively monitored, Dr. John Claque of Simon Fraser University stated "my advice is to focus on the risks to drinking water and the greenhouse gas implications of fracking."
With its established history in Canada fracturing has a direct set of regulations that govern its use. The chemicals that are used in the fracturing process are regulated by the Chemical Management Plan which assesses the toxicity of the substance before it can be manufactured or imported to Canada. In addition, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA)
assesses chemical substances and the management of toxins. While these pieces of legislation, along with the National Energy Board, regulate the development of all hydrocarbon resources, the main source of oversight comes at the provincial level. The only exceptions to this are exploration on federal lands.
In British Columbia, the main basis for regulation on oil and gas development is the Oil and Gas Activities Act that came into effect on October 4, 2010. Within the act are multiple sections that directly address the issue of hydraulic fracturing. In order to protect freshwater resources, the act forbids fracturing operations at depths of less than 600m without a special permit. Additionally, the holder of a well permit must ensure the "hydraulic isolation" of all porous zones within the well. What this ensures is that the hydrocarbons in one layer don't mix with saline or non-saline waters of another layer which is where the contamination of aquifers would occur. This also ensures that saline waters in shallow rock layers don't move into fresh water layers thus contaminating the drinking water that way either.
To further protect groundwater aquifers there is a requirement that only non-toxic drill fluids are to be used until "a qualified professional" (a geologist or engineer depending on the requirements of the well) determines all of the porous layers or layers that contain freshwater are isolated from the drill fluid. This prevents any sort of contamination during the initial drilling. Following this, a casing is lowered into the well bore and the space between the casing and rock is filled with cement. This prevents the mixing of fluids and allows the toxic hydrocarbons to be extracted safely.
In B.C. each well permit holder must submit a detailed records indicating the date the fracture was completed, the types and amounts of every ingredient injected into the well and the supplier of each of the ingredients. This has led British Columbia to be the first province to require all operators to disclose their fluids.
The use of fracturing fluids—a highly contentious aspect of the process—has considerable governmental oversight. In section 37 the Act lays out that a well permit holder will submit detailed records indicating everything from the date the fracture was completed, the types and quantities of every ingredient injected into the well and the supplier of each of the ingredients. British Columbia is the the first province to require all drillers to disclose their fluids. While fracturing fluids have had to be reported to the Energy Resource Conservation Board (ERCB) in Alberta this is the first time that the reported contents will be made available to the public. The information that is contained in the fracturing reports can be found at www.fracfocus.ca. From there you can look at different locations around the province where each well has a complete listing of ingredients used during the fracture. The information that is contained is for all wells fractured after January 1, 2012, although some companies have submitted reports for wells completed at the end of 2011.
Economics of hydraulic fracturing
Hydraulic fracturing has allowed gas companies to extract major previously inaccesible gas reserves and extract them at higher rates than ever before. This has resulted in a glut of the market with natural gas and subsequently driven the price down. The gas industry is now looking for new avenues to market their product including a compressed natural gas (CNG) pickup truck in development by Chrysler. The glut has caused a major slow down in the industry until demand picks up to meet the existing supply. Unlike oil, little natural gas is shipped overseas which makes its price much more reliant on activity in North America. This has been a major compounding factor in the North American decline in natural gas prices. Few regions outside North America have yet embarked upon widespread shale gas fracking programs, although this will likely change soon.
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