It’s not looking good for hydraulic fracturing on the PR front. Also known as the unfortunate-sounding sobriquet “fracking,” it’s the practice of sending superpressurized water down wellbores to fracture deep-bed rock formations and release natural gas.
A recent report in the journal Ground Water concludes that benzene and other toxic chemicals injected into the ground during fracking operations could migrate toward the aquifer level much faster than previously predicted. Experts had assumed that impermeable layers of rock would keep the chemicals trapped deep underground. Not so, according to the report’s author, Tom Myers, an independent hydrogeologist who used computer modelling to examine the safety of gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, where more than 5,000 wells have been drilled between 2009 and 2010. According to his modelling, the toxic chemicals could reach the surface in “just a few years.”
Whatever the predictive powers of Myer’s study—the map is not the territory, and computer models are not ancient deposits of rock—it follows on the heels of a report from U.S. Geological Survey that a “remarkable” increase of quakes in the U.S. mid-continent since 2001 is “almost certainly manmade,” perhaps linked to the deep underground injection of drilling waste from fracking operations. However, the study’s lead author later told reporters that there is no evidence that fracking had any direct connection to the increased seismicity.
So what does that have to do with us in B.C.? Plenty. The northeast corner of our province is home to immense hydraulic fracturing operations, notes Ben Parfitt, a resource policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. At a public meeting two weeks ago at the Vancouver Public Library, Parfitt and other speakers painted a sobering scenario for B.C.’s wilderness, energy independence, and corporate accountability.
B.C.’s shale gas production is comparable to Alberta’s tar sands project. Both require immense amounts of water and energy in their operations; hence their tag as “unconventional” fossil fuel extraction. In a November 2011 report for the CCPA, “Fracking Up Our Water, Hydro Power and Climate,” Parfitt notes a recent B.C. Hydro assessment that the projected power needs of the province’s shale gas sector would require to three times the power produced at the proposed Site C dam on the Peace River.
“Currently, much of the gas produced in B.C. moves by pipeline to Alberta, where the biggest industrial user of natural gas is the tar sands industry. We are literally exporting the world’s most energy-intensive natural gas to help produce some of our planet’s most energy-intensive oil,” writes Parfitt.
In other words, the natural gas extracted in B.C. is going in one pipeline direction to Alberta, to heat water for separating bitumen from sand. In the other direction, synthetic oil created by this process will (Harper willing) soon be flowing in the opposite direction toward the projected supertanker port in Kitimat, which will also have liquid natural gas facilities for the export of gas to China. That nation’s explosive growth, now cooling, has been fuelling this megaproject mania in Canada.
The Ensbridge pipes will also require natural gas “condensate” to smooth the transfer of the heavy oil from Alberta. This energy extraction back and forth reminds me of the Jazz Age cartoons by Rube Goldberg, where a profusion of gears and pulleys perform a straightforward task, like cooking a piece of toast or patting a cat. I asked Parfitt if there’s been a reliable study of the sum energy inputs and outputs of the fracking/tar sands dynamic, without even factoring in environmental impact and water use. Is this the royal road to energy independence, or are we talking about the Tweedledum and Tweedledumber of fossil fuelishness? Or a necessary response to “peak oil?”
Parfitt knows of no reputable study on the net gains and losses, but suggested there are reasons for doubt (a June 2011 report in the New York Times points to Wall Street speculation as a prime mover in shale gas exploration and drilling, comparing the latter to previous financial bubbles). Yet surely technocrats would conduct a proper risk/benefit analysis of such megaprojects, including thorough environmental assessments, well before a reflexive gold rush toward unconventional energy sources, no? It’s not as if the U.S. and Canada are ruled by beancounting boneheads, Ponzi-minded greedheads, and political opportunists, right?
More on this next week.