The provincial energy regulator is asking Albertans for feedback on suggested changes to its rules governing hydraulic fracturing, also referred to as “fracking,” and unconventional resource development. The Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) is in the process of a large-scale review of its fracking regulations, with changes implemented sometime in 2013. The ERCB is specifically concerned with water aquifer protection, preventing above-ground chemical spills, and interwellbore communication.
“That’s when you have two oil or gas wells that are close enough down-hole that there is some sort of impact on one due to activities in the other well,” explains ERCB spokesperson Bob Curran. That kind of underground communication between Midway Energy’s fracking operation and a nearby well operated by Wild Stream Exploration caused a blowout near Innisfail last January. At their closest point, those two wells are 129 metres apart. When the pressure that built up in one escaped to the other bore-hole, fracking fluid leaked to the surface.
Curran says that since the ERCB began monitoring interwellbore communication this year, there have been 21 incidents, but they rarely cause damage.
Hydraulic fracturing is the method of extracting petroleum resources trapped in a rock layer by injecting fluid under high pressure, thereby fracturing the rock. Fracking regulations are increasingly catching the public’s attention as the use of this technology in North America has increased exponentially over the past decade.
Curran says geologists understand the technology and its potential consequences quite well, and that the ERCB is not struggling to align rule-changes with a poorly developed science.
“Hydraulic fracturing as a technology is very well understood, and it’s been applied here extensively in Alberta over our history…. There’s been over 171,000 wells that have been hydraulically fractured in Alberta since the practice began in the 1950s,” he says. Curran says it’s this understanding of the technology, Alberta’s geology, and a long-standing “stringent” regulatory system that have prevented negative incidents in Alberta that are making headlines in other parts of the continent.
He cites a case in the U.S. where the chemical-laced water used in a fracking operation was disposed of at a municipal wastewater treatment plant, “which is not allowed in Alberta for any reason,” he says.
While the ERCB is confident in the safety of fracking, the matter is still up for debate elsewhere. Dr. David Layzell, the head of the University of Calgary’s Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy, says there are significant questions about the technology.
“We do not have good peer-reviewed data from controlled experiments on the costs, benefit and trade-offs (environmental, economic, risk) of the various fracturing technologies. We also need independent, arm’s-length analysis of the greenhouse gas emissions (especially methane) that typically occur during the fracturing process. Some studies have suggested that these emissions can be quite high, while others provide data suggesting that the emissions are insignificant. Most of the evidence to date suggests that there are few environmental impacts associated with the fracturing itself. The problems that have arisen seem to come from spills at the surface, poor integrity of the well casing, or re-injection/disposal of the spent fracturing fluids creating small seismic events,” Layzell explains by email.
He calls on the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Royal Society of Canada, and Canadian Council of Academies to take the lead in designing and carrying out studies in order to avoid conflict of interest and other issues that have arisen from industry and university-led research.
It’s not that studies haven’t been conducted — many have — but contradictory findings and questionable research practices have led many of them to cancel each other out.
In February 2012, Layzell participated in a panel discussion at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Vancouver on fracking’s effect on water quality. The research that discussion was based on was a highly publicized University of Texas study that found no link between fracking and water contamination. The paper suggested public anxiety over fracking was based on biased media reports rather than scientific evidence, and concluded regulatory regimes need not be changed.
In the following months, the University of Texas discovered the lead researcher, Dr. Chip Groat, sat on the board of a fracking company while authoring the paper. A subsequent university review declared “the design, management, review and release of the study… fell short of contemporary standards for scientific work,” and that the study was “inappropriately selective in the use of material.”
Ironically, that study was originally supposed to be funded by an oil company, but funding was rejected when the company insisted it be allowed to vet the final report.
The study has since been trashed and Groat has left the university, yet even solid science remains inconclusive. The surface, groundwater and air pollution associated with fracking is unknown. High-pressure wastewater storage wells may or may not be causing earthquakes. Specific chemicals used in fracking fluid are a mystery in many jurisdictions.
Curran says industry has long been obligated to disclose to the ERCB what is in the injection fluid, and Layzell says it is well known that water, carbon dioxide, nitrogen and propane are most commonly used.
“What we’ve seen is some jurisdictions where there’ve been problems, there have been regulatory gaps,” Curran insists. It is “because of that some of these accidents have occurred. And in Alberta those regulations are already in place to prevent that from occurring.”
When asked if Alberta’s regulations are more comprehensive than others,’ as Curran claims, Layzell says: “I think the question should be whether Alberta is more rigorous in the monitoring and enforcement of the regulations that are in place. In discussions with experts who have worked on both sides of the border, I have been led to believe that Alberta does perform better than some of the U.S. states.... This area is badly in need of one or more high-level studies to review all the evidence around hydraulic fracturing.”
The ERCB is open to public feedback on its interwellbore communication directive until January 18, 2013, and to proposed regulatory changes to unconventional extraction methods until March 31, 2013. Information can be found on the board website at ercb.ca.