The fracking debate

Ryan Ross
Published on January 18, 2014

Corridor Resources undertakes drilling and hydraulic fracturing activities on a natural gas well pad in Penobsquis, N.B.

©Photo special to The Guardian by Corridor Resources Inc.

When it comes to using natural resources no one would confuse P.E.I. for Alberta.

There are no oil wells pumping away or gas wells flowing freely to fuel the economy and help pay to keep the government running.

But there are some who worry that could change if the P.E.I. government decides to allow companies to use the exploration technique called hydraulic fracturing, which is otherwise known as fracking.

Although the province hasn’t taken a stance on fracking, in November the members of the legislative standing committee on agriculture, environment, energy and forestry recommended a moratorium on the practice.

That recommendation came after the committee heard from groups with concerns about oil and gas exploration, including Don’t Frack P.E.I.

Tyne Valley-Linkletter MLA Paula Biggar, who is the committee’s chairwoman, said based on the evidence and information provided to the MLAs there was a consensus to recommend a moratorium.

Biggar said evidence that dealt with the injection of chemicals into the ground was one of the big factors in the decision.

“Basically environmental concerns in regard to making sure our water is protected,” she said.

If the government does decide to impose a moratorium it won’t be alone in Canada where Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia and Quebec have all put temporary freezes on new permits while they study the issue further. Nova Scotia has also commissioned a study to look at the issue.

While the committee, which is made up of six Liberal and two PC MLAs, can make a recommendation to government, that recommendation isn’t binding.

Biggar said Environment Minister Janice Sherry hasn’t sent a written response to the recommendation yet, but the committee will send her department a letter when it meets again in the next few months to get a formal response.

In an interview with The Guardian, Sherry said the government is still waiting for the results of studies in other jurisdictions about hydraulic fracturing before it takes a stance on the issue.

Sherry also said since she became environment minister in November 2011, no one has given her or her department any indication they had an interest in undertaking fracking in P.E.I.

“We believe it’s a very serious issue and we’re trying to take in as much scientific information in regards to fracturing as we can,” she said.

Hydraulic fracturing involves drilling vertically down into a shale formation, which can be several kilometres below the surface. Once it reaches the required depth the drill changes direction to move horizontally across the shale before a steel casing is inserted and secured with cement to keep the well separated from any ground water supplies.

The casing is then perforated to allowing fracturing fluid to flow under high pressure into the nearby rock and create fractures to free up natural gas.

That fracturing fluid is made of mostly water and sand with other chemicals mixed in. The sand is used to keep cracks in the rock open enough for natural gas to flow into the well.

Natural gas exploration and development is big business in Canada with Canadian Natural Gas Initiative reporting there were more than 172,000 jobs in the sector in 2010.

The group predicts that over the next 25 years, B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan will collect $98 billion in royalties from natural gas. Closer to home, Nova Scotia has collected $1.6 billion in royalties from the Sable Island development since 1999, according to Canadian Natural Gas.

That P.E.I. doesn’t benefit from natural resource development isn’t news to most Islanders who pay some of the highest taxes in the country, thanks in part to a lack of revenues from other sources.

But even though oil and gas development hasn’t led to stuffed provincial coffers, that doesn’t mean there haven’t been attempts to find commercially viable sources.

Exploration companies have been doing seismic testing dating back to 1942 when dynamite was used to look for oil off P.E.I.’s coast.

More modern techniques involve vibration equipment, or small explosive charges and devices called geophones, that record data from sound waves as they bounce off underground formations.

The data gathered is then used to map the layers below the surface.

Since 2002 the province has issued seven on-shore permits for seismic surveys, but none of them have ended in production wells.

Corridor Resources and PetroWorth were the last companies to do seismic testing and build exploratory wells.

The last wells were built in 2007 and all of the onshore exploration permits have lapsed without any commercial production.

Data about P.E.I.’s potential gas reserves is also not widely available with neither the provincial government, the National Energy Board nor the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers having any figures on how much gas might be available.

While there are opponents to hydraulic fracturing, the industry maintains it is safe.

Sheri Somerville, natural gas adviser for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said hydraulic fracturing can be done safely and the industry has been doing it for more than 60 years.

“Hydraulic fracturing isn’t actually new,” she said.

What is new within the last few decades is horizontal drilling that reduces the surface footprint of a gas well and gives the ability to reach deposits at lower depths more efficiently, Somerville said.

“If you did it conventionally, drilling straight down vertically, your surface would probably have many, many, many wells on it. It would look like a Swiss cheese sort of thing as opposed to having one well pad and being able to drill 20 wells from there out on the horizontal.”

Somerville said the key to safe hydraulic fracturing is to maintain the integrity of the steel and cement used to encase the well.

“That’s what’s going to protect your aquifers and what not from any possible leaks or emissions,” she said.

Many hydraulic fracturing opponents point to problems in the U.S., such as charges and a $100,000 fine against Exxon Mobile subsidiary XTO Energy for spilling more than 50,000 gallons of wastewater at a natural gas well site in 2010.

Somerville said the rules in Canada are different and more strict when it comes to regulating gas exploration through fracking.

“We’re one of the most heavily regulated sectors in Canada,” she said.

That doesn’t mean there haven’t been problems in Canada where there have been cases of fracking fluid mishaps, such as in 2011 when groundwater was contaminated near Grand Prairie when the fluids were released at too shallow a depth before anyone realized. Water testing found traces of chemicals from the fluid, including benzene and chloride.

Another concern among hydraulic fracturing opponents is what they see as a lack of information about what chemicals go into fracking fluids.

Somerville said the industry isn’t trying to hide what is in its fracking fluids and supports disclosure of the chemicals and additives used in hydraulic fracturing.

That’s already happening in B.C. and Alberta where companies use to disclose information on the fluids they use.

The National Energy Board announced in November that it will start asking companies to disclose that information 30 days after they finish a hydraulic fracturing operation.

Somerville said regulations stipulate how much of the chemicals can be used and in what concentrations.

“Many of the chemicals that are used are found in common household items,” she said.

Some of those chemicals disclosed for one well in B.C. include ethylbenzene, which is used as a solvent, methanol, which is a form of alcohol, and polyethylene glycol, which is sometimes used in cosmetics.

As for the possibility of gas exploration leading to any significant production in P.E.I., like Sherry, Somerville hasn’t heard of any companies planning to work in the province.

“I haven’t even seen any estimates on what the potential is there.”

That lack of interest hasn’t diminished the concern among fracking opponents, such as the group Don’t Frack P.E.I., which has been pushing for a ban on hydraulic fracturing for about a year.

Leo Broderick is one of Don’t Frack P.E.I.’s members and while the group was glad the committee recommended a moratorium, he said the problem is it just puts off a decision for the long term.

“It’s a delay tactic and we need more than that,” he said.

The biggest concern for fracking opponents is what they see as the potential impact on groundwater supplies.

Although fracking is done below groundwater levels, the casings can travel through or near aquifers and opponents worry that problems with those casings could allow toxic chemicals to leak into the water supplies.

Andrew Lush, another of Don’t Frack P.E.I.’s members, said some of the well casings will eventually fail and contaminate groundwater supplies because nothing lasts forever.

“It’s just a matter of time,” he said.

And while the industry says many of those chemicals are found in common household products, Lush doesn’t think that means people would want to have them in their water.

“You might find them in small quantities, but you wouldn’t want to drink them.”

Broderick said it comes down to whether Islanders trust elected officials to make what he sees as the right decision and deny any requests for exploration permits, if any companies ask for them.

“Unless there’s a strong public outcry now I would say that they’ll make the wrong decision.”