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Oh, Canada’s Become a Home for Record Fracking
Posted on Dec 28, 2011
By Nicholas Kusnetz, ProPublica
“The community was used as a test tube,“she said. “I was used as a test tube.”
Earlier this year, Ernst sued Encana, Alberta Environment and Water and the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board, which regulates drilling, alleging that Encana’s drilling was negligent and that the government agencies had covered up the company’s contamination and failed to enforce regulations.
Ernst, who is asking for about $33 million Canadian in damages and return of wrongful profits, has vowed she will not accept a settlement that includes a confidentiality agreement, as others have done.
“Somebody has to do this,“she said.
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The Energy Resources Conservation Board denied a request for an interview. In written responses to questions, spokesman Bob Curran said he could not comment on the specifics of Ernst’s case, but the agency is confident it has conducted itself appropriately.
Carrie Sancartier, a spokeswoman for Alberta Environment and Water, would not comment on Ernst’s allegations because of the lawsuit but said there have been no confirmed cases of gas drilling contaminating water wells in the province.
Muehlenbachs, whose work has been used in several government investigations, said that is “simply false.” He said he’s analyzed thousands of cases of gas leaking up well bores and knows of at least a dozen cases of water contamination.
Alberta has introduced several measures to safeguard water from shallow drilling. In 2006, it established a buffer zone between shallow gas wells and water wells and required drillers to test nearby water wells before drilling into an aquifer.
Nevertheless, last January, as part of a review of drilling regulations, the Energy Resources Conservation Board said shallow fracking poses a risk to groundwater.
Is ‘Communication’ a Risk?
There have been no reports of groundwater contamination related to new drilling in British Columbia.
Increasingly, however, there are reports of something called “communication”—events in which a fracture travels through the ground and connects two gas wells.
Ken Paulson, chief engineer at the province’s Oil and Gas Commission, said these events do not pose a contamination risk. Other experts say their principal impact is to undermine production.
But opponents of expanded shale drilling say instances of communication show that drillers lack a full understanding of what happens when wells are fracked closer together, increasing the risk of contamination. Anthony Ingraffea, an engineering professor at Cornell University, said that if a fracture hit a natural fault, it could allow contaminants to enter aquifers.
Communication has occurred in the U.S. as well: Regulators in Texas, Oklahoma, Michigan and Pennsylvania reported such events to Canadian officials as part of the Energy Resources Conservation Board’s regulatory review.
Documents provided to ProPublica show that energy companies have reported 25 cases of communication in British Columbia since 2009. Companies are not required to report such events, so the list isn’t comprehensive, Paulson said.
In May 2010, the province’s Oil and Gas Commission issued a warning when a drilling company inadvertently shot sand from one fracking job into another well being drilled more than 2,000 feet away.
The advisory said the operator contained the resulting jump in pressure within the well but warned of a “potential safety hazard.” When communication occurs, Paulson said, the biggest concern is that an operator could lose control of a well and cause a blowout.
Concerns Over Water Consumption
As the debate over communication continues, Parfitt and other Canadian environmentalists have raised more immediate concerns about water use.
Fracking requires lots of water—on their biggest reported fracking job, Apache and Encana used an average of 28 million gallons of water per well.
While the oil and gas industry says it is responsible for 1 percent or less of British Columbia’s overall water use, environmental advocates say that may not reflect the full extent of the industry’s consumption or long-term needs.
Drillers use both surface and groundwater. Access to surface water is regulated by two agencies that issue long-term licenses or year-long permits. Overwhelmingly, energy companies have chosen to obtain permits, which require less regulatory review.
Most groundwater withdrawals aren’t regulated at all. Drillers need permits to sink water wells, but there are no limits on the amount of water that can be taken from them. They can also purchase water from other well owners, so there’s no way to track overall use.
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