By Kevin Griffin, Vancouver Sun May 6, 2013
Toxic chemicals such as hydrochloric acid and ethylene glycol (antifreeze) are among those pumped underground to help release natural gas through hydraulic fracturing, according to a database operated by the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission.
Environment Canada wants gas companies to fully disclose what fluids they inject deep underground during fracking, a process that fractures shale rock with tonnes of sand, water and chemicals injected at high pressure to get the gas out.
Disclosure is voluntary and the database FracFocus.ca reveals some of the fluids used. However, it doesn’t list quantities, and types of chemicals vary from site to site.
In correspondence obtained by the Vancouver Sun, Environment Canada’s top official told the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers — the main Canadian oil and gas lobby group — that the government needs more information about the fracking process.
Environment Canada wants gas companies to fully disclose fracking fluids.
While both industry and government regulators claim that the depths at which fracking occurs — up to two kilometres — prevent pollution of surface water, there is growing evidence in the U.S. that fracking does affect groundwater supplies, according to Ben Parfitt, a resource policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
“We are seeing contamination of groundwater that is used by people,” he said in a phone interview.
“There is evidence in Colorado and Wyoming where tests have been done of signatures of gas showing up in drinking water supply. The troubling thing about these findings is that the gas originates in very deep zones.
“There is an unquestionable link with water contamination in some states in the United States as a result of fracking activities.”
The non-profit ProPublica newsroom has reported water contamination in almost 1,000 rural water wells in regions where drilling is taking place. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is investigating the link between hydraulic fracturing and water contamination and expects to release its report next year.
On FracFocus.ca, oil and gas companies drilling in B.C. list some of the fluids injected deep into the ground at high pressure. Suncor Energy well #27583 in Peace River North, for example, is listed as using more than 30 ingredients, including hydrochloric acid, xylene, light aromatic naphtha, polyethylene glycol and kerosene.
The B.C. Oil and Gas Commission said there are no documented cases of groundwater in B.C. being contaminated by either the fluid used in hydraulic fracking or by natural gas released through fracking.
“In B.C., any produced fluids must be either recycled, meaning they are used again in the production of natural gas, or disposed of at an approved disposal facility or deep underground in a licensed disposal well, approved by the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission,” Hardy Friedrich, communications manager for the commission, said by email.
Geoff Morrison, manager of B.C. operations for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said fracking doesn’t contaminate groundwater either through the release of natural gas or through the use of fracking fluids.
Fracking fluid is isolated from surrounding surface and groundwater by layers of steel and concrete, he noted. As well, fracking in B.C. takes place far below where groundwater is found. In B.C., he said, groundwater is 80 to 300 metres below the surface while fracking drills down 2,500 to 3,000 metres.
“Anything that goes in the pipe, stays in the pipe,” Morrison said by phone. “When it gets down to its destination, two or three kilometres down — that’s when it enters the formation where it would be isolated from any drinking water.”
He said the industry has been successfully fracking in Canada for 50 years.
“We have had 175,000 wells hydraulically fracked without an impact on drinking water.”
Parfitt said there’s no easy answer on the extent of the health hazard from the chemicals used in fracking.
Last year, more than 800 deficiencies were found during 4,223 inspections conducted in the oil and gas industry by the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission. Of those, 80 resulted in charges, mainly under the provincial Water Act for the non-reporting of water volumes. Other charges included violations under the provincial Environmental Management Act.
Neither details of the violations nor the names of the companies responsible are available because the commission wouldn’t release that information.
Chemicals are added for numerous reasons, including reducing friction to lower resistance as the fracking fluid moves down the well and to prevent bacterial growth so the flow of gas isn’t inhibited.
“Some of those chemicals are clearly carcinogenic,” Parfitt said. “It depends on the chemicals being used. It depends on the combination. It depends on the concentrations of those chemicals as to what kind of public health threat they could pose.”
In 2010, Parfitt wrote a report on the effects of fracking on water called Fracture Lines: Will Canada’s Water be Protected in the Rush to Develop Shale Gas? He quoted the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission, which said about 40 per cent of injected water remains in the ground. The other 60 per cent flows back within the first four months following fracturing.
“The water is contaminated with chemicals and, more importantly, anything that water has come in contact with,” Parfitt said, citing heavy metals and minerals. Depending on the geological formations it comes in contact with, the water can also come back five times saltier than ocean water.
Some of the 60 per cent of water that flows back can be used again as fracking fluid. Eventually, he said, the fracking fluid becomes too contaminated even to be used for fracking any longer.
“At that point, the only ‘treatment’ in quotation marks in B.C. is to inject that highly toxic water deep underground for what they call permanent disposal,” he said.
But Parfitt said that in the U.S., evidence is showing that deep-well injecting is being linked to the occurrence of earthquakes.
The amount of water used in fracking operations is staggering. Parfitt’s report cites what has been called the world’s biggest frack northwest of Fort Nelson at Two Island Lake. That frack used an estimated 445,000 cubic metres of contaminated flow-back water — enough to bury a soccer field under 15.6 metres of water.
Parfitt suggests that what is needed are industrial-sized waste water treatment plants near fracking operations. He estimates that treating waste water would cost between $10 and $15 a cubic metre.
“But the cost must be weighed against what is gained,” he said. “For starters, with waste water treatment the industry will be able to recover half of the water it uses, meaning it will save the cost of accessing that much new water.
“Second, the cost of disposing of the water by trucking or piping it to disposal well sites and then pumping it back underground is saved as well.”