by Doug Sack
On my long and winding road back to the Yukon, I stopped in the oil patch for 10 years to run bulldozers and participated in somewhere between 25 and 35 hydraulic fracturing jobs in the Duvernay shale field, which encompasses most of central Alberta but also sneaks across the B.C. border in the South Peace country of Tumbler Ridge, Chetwynd, Hudson’s Hope and McBride Lake, amidst the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
In fact, shale fracking on the B.C. side close to the mountains was hugely successful, and it was common for B.C. wells to produce four times the natural gas of flatland Alberta wells after being fracked and cracked, the theory being that previous tectonic activity caused larger reservoirs of gas and some oil to develop.
The only other shale field in B.C. large enough to be considered major is the Liard/Horn River field in the northeast corner, most of which (80 per cent) lies south of the border except for the northern tip which intrudes into both the N.W.T. and the Yukon.
It is this tiny tip of an insignificant shale field, the most northern on the “major fields” map of North America, that piqued my interest, because I was frankly astonished to arrive back here over a year ago and see anti-fracking bumper stickers, hear about an 8,000 signature “frack off” petition and read blood-curdling anti-Yukon Party vitriol because they conditionally approved fracking in that tiny southeast corner of the territory.
While I admit the bumper stickers can be humorous -“Get the frack outta here!,” “Go frack Yourself,” etc. - it made me wonder how hydraulic fracturing somehow got lumped in with killing whales, strip mining, clear-cut logging and global warming on the environmental disaster scale.
Ironically, the major motivation for fracking gas wells, besides profit, is to get the world off its coal addiction because coal deposits 60-70 per cent more carbon into the ozone than natural gas. When shale fracking was first getting started in Pennsylvania in 1998, it was considered the environmentally correct thing to do (if it worked) and many left-leaning environmentalists embraced it as a potential “cure” for global warming because gas burns clean while coal is filthy.
I consider myself a reasonably well-informed environmental sympathizer, perhaps cursed with common sense, and my primary job in the patch was restoring abandoned oil and gas leases to their original pristine state after the oil companies declared them exhausted. Frack jobs were just brief diversions, often one day, from our reclamation work and I never once considered myself some kind of environmental rapist for giving the hard-working frackers a helping hand.
Fears of groundwater contamination baffles me, too. The fracturing is normally being done at such an extreme depth, often over a mile, that polluting shallow aquifers is virtually impossible with cemented drill holes so long as the operators follow regulations. Some don’t, of course, but that is a regulatory problem which can be fixed by massive fines.
In fact, the only potential environmental damage I ever noticed on a frack job was when an employee, probably a new hire, messed up and accidentally spilled some chemical on the ground which caused the supervising consultant to rush out of his trailer with his arms waving. Then it was my job to sweep it up with a small dozer and get it in a truck and off for a ride to the contamination dump.
Fracturing underground rock, or attempting to, has been around since the 1860s when a northern soldier in the American Civil War noticed during a southern artillery barrage at Fredericksburg that rockets which landed in lakes and rivers tended to explode sideways because of the weight of the water. He theorized, being an oilman temporarily a soldier, that putting a torpedo down a drill hole filled with water would cause the subsequent explosion to shatter the rock. When he tried it after the war, it worked perfectly and he became a millionaire.
The fracturing of shale with high-pressure water is a new application of an old practice, some say the most significant advancement in the history of oil and gas production, and is primarily responsible for these recent developments:
1. It has wounded coal, the dirtiest fuel of them all, and has the potential to kill coal entirely sometime in the 21st century if the necessary pipelines get built.
2. It has cut America’s energy imports from OPEC and other nations by 50 per cent in the last decade.
3. The world’s biggest user of energy, industrial America, is on track to actually being energy self-sufficient by 2020 with a surplus for export for the first time in their history, the biggest contributor being the heavily-fracked Bakken shale field of North Dakota, half of which lies above the Canadian border deep beneath southeast Saskatchewan. That could be the next big Canadian energy play and may make Saskatchewan the new Alberta.
It may all become a moot point in the near future anyway as it’s only a matter of time before oil engineers find a way to get laser beams to the bottom of drill holes and hydraulic fracturing will go the way of the buggy whip.
You can also look at it like this if you are anti-war, as I am being a Vietnam veteran: Americans tend to start new wars when they are short of oil and gas. If you need that explained, you must have recently returned from a long holiday on Mars. The incredible success of hydraulic fracturing in the U.S. has negated the excuse to invade small foreign countries sitting on huge energy fields. Or is it just a coincidence that no more invasions have happened since shale fracking caught on, took off and became wildly successful?
I don’t see how any anti-war environmentalist can be anything but a fracking enthusiast.
But don’t take my word for it. The Yukon Public Library has a 2014 book on its shelves by a writer far more talented, knowledgeable and believable than I. His name is Russell Gold and he is the longtime senior energy reporter for the Wall Street Journal. His parents were peace, love and granola hippies and he leans to the left personally but writes extremely well from the objective centre, as any good journalist is trained to do.
The book is called: The Boom, How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World.
After reading it, you might want to change your Yukon bumper sticker to something like: “Frack me, baby, and I’ll give you more gas.”
Doug Sack was the first sports editor of the Yukon News and later a longtime sports editor of the Whistler Question and a columnist and features writer for Ski Canada magazine. He is currently semi-retired in Whitehorse.