Shallow fracking ban small comfort to critics

A forthcoming ban on shallow hydraulic fracturing ought to assure the public that oil and gas exploration won't pollute groundwater, says Energy, Mines and Resources Minister Brad Cathers.

A forthcoming ban on shallow hydraulic fracturing ought to assure the public that oil and gas exploration won’t pollute groundwater, says Energy, Mines and Resources Minister Brad Cathers.

In imposing the ban, the Yukon Party is closing a loophole left open by the NDP when it created the territory’s oil and gas regulations 13 years ago, Cathers told the legislature last week.

“The NDP left the door wide open to shallow fracking,” Cathers declared. “We will shut that door.”

The ban on shallow fracturing, or fracking, is part of an ongoing review of the Yukon’s oil and gas regulations. In an interview, Cathers said this will “ensure they reflect the most modern approach in the country.”

Fracking involves blasting pressurized water, chemicals and sand deep underground to extract natural gas that was previously unreachable.

Simple fracking has been practised for 60 years. But the technique, combined with horizontal drilling and other new technologies, has triggered a bonanza for natural gas exploration in North America over the past decade.

It’s also come under heavy criticism for fear that fracking has polluted drinking water.

The Yukon government is considering whether to allow oil and gas exploration in the Whitehorse Basin, an area that stretches from Carmacks to Carcross. Premier Darrell Pasloski sees natural gas as a solution to the territory’s looming electricity shortage.

Meanwhile, the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources is preparing for fracking proposals, according to documents obtained by the NDP Opposition.

The NDP and conservationists want fracking banned until it’s proven safe, as has been done in Quebec, the states of New York and New Jersey, and all of France.

But the greatest risk arises when fracking is conducted at shallow depths, said Cathers. Such was the case in Pavillion, Wyoming, where residents blame fracking for fouled water.

An investigation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency seems to bear this out. In December, the agency concluded that fracking was likely to blame for polluted groundwater. Industry disputes the findings.

Territorial officials have yet to set a depth limit, said Cathers. But it’s likely that the practice won’t be allowed any farther up than approximately 650 metres, he said.

Little shallow fracking done

But shallow fracking is “a non-issue,” said the NDP’s Jim Tredger.

“I don’t know of any jurisdictions in North America, other than Alberta, where it’s still being done,” he said. “And Alberta is phasing it out.”

Richard Corbet, the oil and gas branch’s manager of operations, agreed that “very little” shallow fracking is done.

“It’s generally a complete waste of time and effort, except for with coal and methane. And that one is quite a ways out, as far as Yukon is concerned,” he said.

More than half of North America’s natural gas wells drilled in the past decade have been fracked, said Corbet. Of those, only a small number have gone awry.

“It’s perfectly possible to extract hydrocarbons from the ground, and do it responsibly and safely and environmentally consciously,” he said. “I can’t guarantee nobody will ever make a mistake. That would be silly.

“And nature can bite you in the ass. But if you’re prepared, and you have to be in this business, you can almost eliminate those occurrences.”

The mess in Wyoming may have been caused by any number of sloppy practices that are already banned in the Yukon, said Corbet. There, fracking fluid has been stored in unlined pits, and some gas wells were never properly encased in metal and concrete.

“Well that’s not legal here,” said Corbet. “And it’s not legal in Alberta or B.C.”

But the territory isn’t ready for an oil and gas accident, said Lewis Rifkind, of the Yukon Conservation Society. He noted that a drill rig caught fire following a blowout on March 9 near Hudson’s Hope, B.C.

More than a week later, the blaze continued to burn, CBC News reported.

“We have to ask what risks we’re comfortable with, given that the postings are in the Whitehorse Trough, where 25 per cent of the Yukon population lives,” said Rifkind. “Is this something people want in their backyard?

“No disrespect to the Hootalinqua Fire Department, but what if this blew north of the hot springs? They’d be first responders. Do they have the equipment, training and personnel to deal with this?”

Water worries

A partial fracking ban won’t cut it, said Tredger. “All fracking is experimental. And all fracking uses a lot of water,” he said.

In northeast B.C., fracking operations for shale wells have consumed up to 90 million litres of water, according to the Pembina Institute.

“Water is the source of life here,” said Tredger. “It’s the one resource we have in abundance. We have to make sure, in coming generations, it’s still here.”

The Department of Environment is supposed to be working closely with Energy, Mines and Resources to prepare potential oil and gas development, said Tredger. Yet Environment appears to be taking a backseat role, according to documents obtained by the NDP through an access-to-information request.

Take the case of a question-and-answer document prepared on fracking by Energy, Mines and Resources. The paper makes little mention of the risks fracking fluid poses to groundwater, despite this objection being raised by an Environment official.

“The potential threats of both leaving the water in the ground as well as removing contaminated wastewater are not addressed in depth,” wrote Erin Light, a water specialist with Environment Yukon.

“After the mixture of sand, chemicals and water is pumped into the ground, depending on the project, 20 to 85 per cent of the water stays in the ground and the remainder is removed as wastewater.

“For the portion of the mixture that remains in the ground, this water may not be of immediate concern because of the depth that hydro-fracking takes place at.

“However, the long-term consequences of this still remain unclear and need to be further investigated.”

Fracking chemicals include “highly corrosive salts, carcinogens like benzene and radioactive elements like radium and uranium. This wastewater is deposited at water treatment facilities,” noted Light.

“Although this appears to be a good approach, the wastewater treatment facilities are not necessarily designed to treat it.

“According to the study by the EPA (US Environmental Protection Agency), the level of radioactivity in the water is at a higher level than federal regulators say is safe for the treatment plants to handle. This wastewater that is released 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 the Yukon, this wastewater would either be trucked out of the territory to a treatment plant, or reinjected deep into the earth, said Ron Sumanik, manager of oil and gas business development.

“You don’t dispose of the water at surface,” he said.

And the territory intends to require companies to publicly disclose the chemicals used in fracking fluid, as is done in B.C.

Fracking likely: gov’t

Yukon government officials anticipate that industry may want to frack in the Yukon, according to ministerial briefing notes.

“While shale gas has not been explored for or produced in Yukon, future oil and gas projects will most likely consider shale gas reservoirs as potential targets,” one note states. “Hydraulic fracturing would most likely be used to develop these resources.”

But Corbet is dismissive of the possibility of large-scale shale fracking occurring in the territory.

“Right now we don’t have disposal facilities, infrastructure, and so on, to handle serious oilfield waste anywhere in the Yukon,” he said. “So the odds of someone trying to do shale gas development here in the Yukon? Forget it.”

Conventional gas deposits are easier to find and more profitable to produce, said Corbet.

“So why would you spend three, four or five times as much money to get half as much product by going shale gas? It doesn’t make any sense. So we’re not going to see that.”

Cathers has been criticized for not attending any public meetings held about allowing oil and gas exploration in the Whitehorse Basin.

In response, Cathers said he stayed away because he was concerned his presence would “interfere” with the process.

“It’s standard practice for government ministers to let officials do their work without us hanging over their shoulders,” said Cathers.

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