Oil industry reporter Nathan Vanderklippe, in an article for the Globe Investor, predicts that this spring will see a sudden rise in the number of Italian sports cars on the streets of Calgary. It appears that a shortage of business executives with experience in “innovations in extracting oil sands ... (and) underground fracturing, or fracking” is driving an escalation in signing bonuses and salary packages.
Haliburton Corporation was the first to use hydraulic fracturing, back in 1947. It pumped millions of litres of water, laced with chemicals, down the pipe of a natural gas well at pressure high enough to facture the rock and unlock pools of gas that had been inaccessible. A new and cost-effective way of extending the life of a well, the practice grew in use, became common in the 1970s, and is widespread today.
Why is there a shortage of executives with experience in the field? Because the quest for ever-deeper, more effective extraction of trapped gas deposits creates a spiral of technical innovation. It’s hard to keep up.
Among the skills that make the fracking executive so valuable is the knowledge of the secret chemical formula. The nature of the chemicals used in fracking is considered to be proprietary information, and is not available to the public or to regulators. This can be disquieting to people who live near gas wells, since it is known that among the possibilities are the carcinogen benzene, the neurotoxin lead and the deadly poisons, ethylene glycol, methanol and boric acid. A 2010 study by Duke University found excessive levels of methane in well water close to fracking sites.
Anther factor, which adds to the complexity of hydraulic fracturing, is the use of radioactive tracers, including cobalt-60, which can kill you, and Krypton-85, which can kill Superman. A study by the U.S. Environmental Protection agency found that fracking wastewater is too radioactive to be handled by water treatment plants, though that is, in fact, exactly where it is handled. In a 2010 investigation, the New York Times found that despite relatively tough regulation, drinking water in Pittsburgh, Pa., is radioactive due to nearby fracking.
In a 2011 memo, Paul Boothe, deputy minister of Environment Canada, reported to his minister, Peter Kent, that “a typical shale gas site with average wells would use about 110 million litres of water taken from ground or surface sources, affecting aquatic flora and fauna and potentially resulting in decreased availability of water for surrounding municipalities.” The average well, he predicted, “may require between 55,000 and 220,000 litres of chemicals” some of them, as we have seen, highly toxic.
The Boothe memo warns of such environmental risks as “potential for water contamination ... decreased availability of water for surrounding municipalities ... habitat fragmentation” and a sharp increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Kent announced the launch of a study, but has done nothing to slow the expansion of fracking in the meantime.
Here in the Yukon, it looks as though another conservative government is paying little heed to similar advice from its own advisers. Environment Yukon has warned that the release of radioactive water “back into the hydrosphere (usually lakes and rivers) may be of concern, particularly because these toxic chemicals will enter the food chain through fish or farming.” In response, Brad Cathers, minister of Energy, Mines, and Resources, has promised a ban on shallow fracking, something that no one is interested in doing anyway.
People around Whitehorse were relieved when Cathers, reacting to intense public pressure, announced that oil and gas explorations will not be taking place in this area for the next four years. Since this leaves the rest of the Yukon open to exploration, we may have traded the cherished wilderness that so many love to romanticize with words like “pristine” and “unspoiled” for a little peace in our own backyards. There is nothing pristine about a chemically-contaminated gas field, or a radioactive river. A moratorium on exploration in a populated area is a good step forward, but it shouldn’t be allowed to distract from the much more important issue of the need for a territory-wide ban on fracking.
If it seems astonishing that governments could ignore the obvious dangers associated with fracking, even when warned by their own advisers, it shouldn’t be. Government decision making is largely a question of influence. Mature governments are influenced by the advice of qualified civil servants, based on known facts and risks. Immature governments don’t hear that kind of advice so well. They’re distracted by the seductive roar of the oilmen’s Ferraris.
Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.