Musings: Frac Attack: Burning Water And Earthquakes

The war being waged by environmentalists against the use of hydraulic fracturing in developing natural gas shale wells has expanded to western Canada. And the recent earthquakes in the United Kingdom and Arkansas are also considered tied to the fracturing of wells in the immediate areas. Based on the fact that the plaintiff in the Canadian case against hydraulic fracturing has been invited to present at the 19th session of the Commission on Sustainable Development at the United Nations later this year suggests that the future of unconventional gas shale development globally is under growing attack. The question is whether these attacks will lead to cessation of the gas shale resource development, or merely more aggressive and possibly uniform regulation.

In late April, lawyers for an oil and gas industry consultant, Jessica Ernst, filed a suit against EnCana for failing to follow required notification rules and causing contamination of a water well along with the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) in Alberta and the Alberta government for failing to provide supervision and to adequately follow up on complaints about the condition of the water well. The well is on property near Rosebud, some 60 miles northeast of Calgary. The claim is that Ms. Ernst's water well, and water wells of some of her neighbors, have been contaminated with methane, butane and propane as a result of hydraulic fracturing of coal bed methane (CBM) wells drilled by EnCana. According to the complaint, the water wells draw from the Rosebud Aquifer that lies adjacent to the Carbon Thompson Coals and the Weaver Coals that form part of the Horseshoe Canyon formation that underlies most of Wheatland County and that is being drilled by EnCana. 

Exhibit 6.  Rosebud Is Northeast Of Calgary
Frac Attack: Burning Water And Earthquakes


The complaint alleges that the contamination of Ms. Ernst's well is so bad that the water can be set on fire in dramatic descriptions of the size of the flames and that the water in toilets in the house actually bubbles. The complaint also states that isotopic fingerprinting authorized by Alberta Environment confirmed that the signatures of the chemicals in the wells matched the signatures from the gas being produced in the EnCana wells. 

A recent report from the ERCB in its jurisdictional review of the challenges of regulating the development of gas shale resources highlighted the many issues that need to be considered and how various government and regulatory bodies around the world are addressing those challenges. A list of the broad categories of regulatory challenges includes: well spacing, hydraulic fracturing, water management, landowner/public concerns, environmental issues, the regulatory process, and information collection and dissemination.  With respect to hydraulic fracturing, the ERCB acknowledged that at shallow depths the risk of contamination must be managed because hydraulic fracturing operations are being conducted nearer the base of the groundwater aquifer. In deeper zones that contamination risk is less likely due to the large vertical separation between the hydraulic fracturing operation and the aquifer.  However, according to the ERCB, the claims of contamination have produced no cases with documented evidence that they were caused by hydraulic fracturing operations. The ERCB did recognize the need for disclosure of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, but made no comment about the disclosure of the mixture of those chemicals.

The latest twist in the gas shale debate occurred in the UK where Cuadrilla Resources suspended its hydraulic fracturing operations due to claims they were causing earthquakes. The British Geological Society (BGS) said it recorded a 1.5-magnitude earthquake on May 27th. Besides the BGS, experts from Keele University and the UK government's Department of Energy and Climate Change analyzed data from a site at Weeton in Lancashire about 10 kilometers from Blackpool. A 2.3-magnitude earthquake was recorded at the same site on April 1st. The UK experiences 20 to 30 of these low magnitude earthquakes each year. The quakes are not strong enough to cause any damage. The problem is that the area around Blackpool was not known to have experienced earthquakes until the drilling and hydraulic fracturing activity began. 

According to Brian Baptie, a BGS seismologist, "We recorded a second earthquake on May 27 and it's in exactly the same place as the event on April 1. It appears to correlate with the fluid injection part of the fracking operations on the site." In Arkansas, according to the state's oil and gas commission and the Arkansas Geological Survey (AGS), they have found no evidence that drilling or hydraulic fracturing caused a series of earthquakes there this spring.

Exhibit 7.  Blackpool Site Of Earthquakes
Frac Attack: Burning Water And Earthquakes
Source:  Google Maps

In a telephone interview conducted by the Globe and Mail, AGS director Bekki White said, "As far as whether it is related to injection of fluids, we still have not determined whether it is or whether it is naturally occurring."

The events of the past several weeks indicate that the environmental battle over the use of hydraulic fracturing will be waged on the global stage. This battle is increasing pressure on governments that have welcomed the sudden energy windfall from the discovery of huge gas shale resources. As governments and the public raise concerns about the continued use of nuclear fuel, and they recognize the lack of scalability of renewable fuel solutions and their significant costs, we are sure they would love for the hydraulic fracturing war to go away. While jobs, health costs and taxes are listed as the key issues for deciding the next set of global elections, we wouldn't dismiss energy as becoming equally as important in deciding the world's next leaders.

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