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Oh, Canada’s Become a Home for Record Fracking
Posted on Dec 28, 2011
By Nicholas Kusnetz, ProPublica
These changes, combined with the area’s severe conditions, spurred companies to concentrate and scale up their operations in British Columbia in an effort to cut costs, industry experts say. The result: a string of record-breaking fracks.
In a written response to questions from ProPublica, Apache said this approach reduces surface disturbance. It also can heighten the risk of air and water pollution, said Bruce Kramer, an expert in oil and gas law with McGinnis, Lochridge and Kilgore, a Texas-based law firm.
In both western provinces, the regional authorities responsible for regulating drilling have passed rules to allow more intensive drilling.
In Alberta, drillers can now pack wells closer together and pump more water out of shallow coal seams to free gas more efficiently. British Columbia issued detailed regulations last year that limit where and when companies can drill and set rigorous environmental standards but also gave its Oil and Gas Commission the authority to exempt drillers from virtually all of these provisions.
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Still, the regulatory shifts have prompted environmental advocates in Alberta and British Columbia to question whether officials are prepared to cope with rising concerns about water use, contamination and unchecked development.
“We just don’t have a clue how big this issue is from a public policy perspective,“said Bob Simpson, a member of British Columbia’s legislative assembly and an outspoken critic. “We really don’t know what we’re doing.”
Jessica Ernst’s Water Problems
Over the last five years, there have been several prominent cases in which Alberta residents have said gas drilling contaminated their water.
There are no hard numbers. The government does not track such complaints. But in some instances, residents’ frustration has been exacerbated by their sense that regulators have not properly investigated their claims.
In 2005, Jessica Ernst noticed strange things happening to her water. The toilet fizzed. The faucets whistled. Black particles clogged her filter. Then she began getting rashes.
Ernst, a longtime environmental consultant for oil and gas companies, wondered whether the changes could be connected to drilling nearby. Encana had been drilling shallow coalbed methane wells near her home outside of Rosebud, about 50 miles northeast of Calgary.
She asked Alberta Environment and Water, the agency that oversees groundwater, to test her well. When the well was drilled in 1986, tests showed it had no methane. The new tests, however, showed high levels of the gas, as well as a hydrocarbon called F2 and two other chemicals.
But in 2007, a government research agency concluded it was unlikely that drilling had affected her water. The final report said the chemicals found were not typically used in coalbed methane drilling, and that one had probably come from a plastic tube used to test the water.
Ernst wasn’t satisfied with the province’s response, however. The government’s report concluded that the methane in her well might be occurring naturally because tests showed similar levels of gas in nearby wells. But the tests were conducted after Ernst noticed the changes in her water—she saw the results as an indication that the contamination might be more widespread.
The government’s report also ignored evidence provided by one of its own analysts, a professor of geochemistry at the University of Alberta. When Karlis Muehlenbachs analyzed the gas in Ernst’s well for Alberta Environment and Water, he found ethane, a gas often found with methane, with a chemical signature indicating that it had come from deep underground, below the depth of the well. Muehlenbachs told ProPublica that the ethane’s signature meant that it could not have been there naturally. He said he is convinced that it resulted from drilling.
As Ernst searched for answers to what happened to her water, she unearthed evidence of other problems related to drilling. She found an Alberta Environment and Water report that listed cases in which the fracking of shallow wells resulted in gas or fluid leaking into nearby gas wells or spraying into the air. She also found government gas well records that said Encana had fracked into the aquifer that supplies her water well.
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