Hydraulic fracturing, a process used to tap into deep natural gas and oil reservoirs, is a common industry practice that has been used safely in Canada for many decades.
In British Columbia, about 90 per cent of the wells drilled are hydraulically fractured. In Alberta, that number is 70 per cent.
In the Yukon, the prospect of using hydraulic fracturing to develop natural gas is recent. So it’s only reasonable people have questions about what this means to their territory.
To address those questions, scientific research and the experience of Alberta and B.C. can be instructive.
Hydraulic fracturing is part of the process necessary to recover natural gas and oil from deep unconventional reservoirs in shale and tight sand. The technology was developed in the 1940s and has helped to produce natural gas throughout North America.
Today, most horizontally drilled wells use multi-stage hydraulic fracturing, which means the horizontal leg of a well is fractured in multiple intervals. After a well is fractured, it can produce natural gas for up to 30 years, typically without having to be fractured again.
One concern is the greenhouse gas emissions associated with hydraulic fracturing compared to more conventional extraction methods. The difference, however, is small.
A report commissioned by Natural Resources Canada states “lifecycle GHG emissions of natural gas produced from shale resources are only slightly higher than those of natural gas produced from more conventional sources.”
The report states GHG lifecycle emissions from natural gas from shale are 3.8 per cent higher than the weighted average (the weighted average includes all forms of natural gas).
A study published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2012, which examines hydraulic fracturing in the United States, says “the production of shale gas and specifically the associated hydraulic fracturing operations, have not materially altered the total GHG emissions from the natural gas sector.”
Over time, we can expect technology and innovation will further reduce emissions intensity in Canada’s energy sector, including the development of natural gas.
It is also important to note natural gas is the cleanest-burning fossil fuel. Used in power generation, it burns about 50 per cent cleaner than coal and has far fewer sulphur dioxide and particulate matter emissions. In the U.S., carbon dioxide emissions from energy use were the lowest in 20 years in 2012, according to the Energy Information Administration, partially as the result of increased natural gas use to generate electricity.
Other concerns about hydraulic fracturing are the additives used in fracturing fluid and drinking water protection.
Fracturing fluid consists of about 98.5 per cent water and sand. The remainder is chemical additives serving a number of purposes such as reducing friction and preventing bacterial growth inside the well. Disclosure of fracturing fluid additives is mandatory in B.C. and Alberta and can be found online at FracFocus.ca.
A growing body of independent scientific research indicates hydraulic fracturing is safe. A 2011 MIT study, examining the U.S. context, states that “with over 20,000 shale wells drilled in the last 10 years, the environmental record of shale gas development has for the most part been a good one.”
A 2012 report by the UK Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering, meanwhile, says evidence indicates the risks of fractures from shale formations reaching overlying aquifers is “very low,” provided fracturing takes place at depths of several hundreds or thousands of metres.
This is typically the case in Western Canada, where natural gas-bearing shale formations are 2,000 to 3,000 metres below the surface.
Hydraulic fracturing is a controlled, planned process, completed by highly trained professionals, that’s subject to effective government regulations.
For example, regulations in B.C. and Alberta require companies to report any release of fracturing fluids into the environment. In the unlikely event of a release, companies must take action to remediate the incident.
In addition to regulations, natural gas producers have implemented voluntary operating practices for hydraulic fracturing that apply nationally. Industry’s safety record has been strong as a result.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers’ operating practices for hydraulic fracturing identify sound wellbore construction as fundamental to protecting groundwater sources. The practices also support disclosure of fracturing fluid additives and development of fracturing fluid additives with the least environmental risks.
And they commit member operators to measuring and disclosing water use with the goal of continuing to reduce industry’s effect on the environment. We encourage governments to adopt these practices in regulations.
It is important people in the Yukon have all the facts as they participate in the important discussion about natural gas development in their territory.
Should the Yukon decide to allow the development of natural gas, it is our goal to develop this resource safely, reliably and in an environmentally responsible manner – as we do in Alberta, B.C. and wherever else we live and work.
Alex Ferguson is vice-president
of policy and environment for
the Canadian Association of