Groundwater safe from fracs

May 26th, 2011
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The technicalities of shale gas may interest some of you as much as the drying of latex paint or the growth of Kentucky blue grass. Certainly the U.S. customs official looked bemused when he asked why I was travelling, and I answered “shale gas conference”. That said, the amount of gas now believed producible from tight shale formations is massive, and could lead to a significant degree of energy independence for North Americans.

I say “could” because industry and individual consumers would have to take advantage of the flow of cheap gas.  But, perhaps more importantly, producers and regulators have to overcome the barrage of environmentalist misinformation currently hampering much shale gas development.

The key issue, as I have written before in these pages, is that a small, vociferous minority of activists has spread allegations that the hydraulic fracturing of gas-bearing formations – at several kilometres depth – is causing rural water wells to spew methane. Worse, they allege that industry is using a toxic cocktail of chemicals to stimulate the formations during frac-ing, and these in turn will find their way into the groundwater, contaminating entire watersheds.

This argument, sensationalized by the movie Gasland, has spread around the globe. Despite the absence of solid data, the misinformation has, according to recent reports, led countries like France to ban hydraulic frac-ing.  Apparently, South Africa is considering the same thing. New York and Quebec are currently under drilling moratorium until studies can be completed proving the safety of drilling and completion practices.

Certainly, jurisdictions where oil and gas activity is new must satisfy themselves that industry is operating safely and responsibly. Unfortunately, as in so many cases,the anti-industry propaganda may yet overwhelm the facts of the case.

I was fortunate to learn a lot of facts about shale gas over the last few days. One is the fact that there is a nub of truth to the accusations by environmentalists that industry activity, at least in Pennsylvania, has corresponded with an increase in methane in rural water wells. But, according to state officials I spoke with – who are privy to all the data – none of this gas has in anyway been linked to frac-ing.

What has happened is that some operators have not sufficiently isolated their well-bores with metal tubing and cement – standard industry practice. This has allowed methane generated naturally from shallow formations to move laterally into water wells and even bubble up on the banks of the Susquahanna river. But lets be clear, this is a region where a lot of hydrocarbons reside in shallow formations, so many rural water wells already had natural gas seeping into them. Poor industry practice has merely exacerbated this.

One official told me that when they compelled an operator to remediate the shallow part of one well – by squeezing cement into the formation – the methane leak stopped immediately. Readers should know that if wells are properly drilled, as they are virtually every time in Alberta, such casing and cement leaks do not occur.

Similarly, an AAPG official who had watched activist litigation associated with Barnett shale development in Texas, reported that courts there had ruled that there was not a single instance where changes in groundwater could be attributed to industry activity.

So there it is. Not a single piece of evidence to suggest that frac-ing was affecting groundwater, let alone contaminating wells and watersheds with noxious chemicals.

This is no surprise. The frac-ing is of course taking place thousands of feet below the surface, and all evidence (e.g. micro-seismic imaging) suggests that hydraulic-induced fractures extend at most tens of metres from the well-bore, and tend to propagate down, rather than upward.

Needless to say, the activists haven’t let the facts get in the way of their argument. When not talking about the poisoning of drinking water, they are slamming the amount of water industry uses in the frac-ing process. Interestingly, the state officials pointed out that oil industry water use ranks ninth – after agriculture, other industry and … wait for it … golf courses.

Another untold story is the fact that other activities that affect watersheds – notably agriculture and winter road-salting – are virtually unregulated. In fact, water well drilling in Pennsylvania itself is essentially unregulated. You can drill anywhere, any way you want.

Interestingly, in the Ft. Worth area – where government has mandated air quality monitoring of Barnett drilling – the air quality sensors have turned up all sorts of previously-unknown odd chemicals in the urban air. And none of them have to do with shale gas.

All this does not mean that some jurisdictions shouldn’t pull up their socks in terms of better regulations around drilling and completion practices. There are responsible places, like Alberta, they can learn from. Most importantly however, is the fact that the crazed accusations against hydraulic frac-ing are baseless, and activists have yet again been falsely maligning industry and needlessly sowing fear amongst an unwitting public.

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By John Weissenberger