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.

Contact John Thompson at

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Willow Brewster, a paramedic helping in the COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre, holds a swab used for the COVID-19 test moments before conducting a test with it on Nov. 24. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
An inside look at the COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre

As the active COVID-19 case count grew last week, so too did… Continue reading

Conservation officers search for a black bear in the Riverdale area in Whitehorse on Sept. 17. The Department of Environment intends to purchase 20 semi-automatic AR-10 rifles, despite the inclusion of the weapons in a recently released ban introduced by the federal government, for peace officers, such as conservation officers. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Environment Minister defends purchase of AR-10 rifles for conservation officers

The federal list of banned firearms includes an exception for peace officers

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: The K-shaped economic recovery and what Yukoners can do about it

It looks like COVID-19 will play the role of Grinch this holiday… Continue reading

Jodie Gibson has been named the 2020 Prospector of the Year by the Yukon Prospectors Association. (Submitted)
Jodie Gibson named 2020 Prospector of the Year

Annual award handed out by the Yukon Prospector’s Association

A number 55 is lit in honour of Travis Adams, who died earlier this year, at the Winter Wonderland Walk at Meadow Lakes Golf Club in Whitehorse on Nov. 24. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
A new take on holiday traditions

Winter Wonderland Walk, virtual Stories with Santa all part of 2020 festive events in Whitehorse

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Help make children’s wishes come true

Black Press Media, BraveFace host mask fundraiser for Make-A-Wish Foundation

Colin McDowell, the director of land management for the Yukon government, pulls lottery tickets at random during a Whistle Bend property lottery in Whitehorse on Sept. 9, 2019. A large amount of lots are becoming available via lottery in Whistle Bend as the neighbourhood enters phase five of development. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Lottery for more than 250 new Whistle Bend lots planned for January 2021

Eight commercial lots are being tendered in additional to residential plots

The Government of Yukon Main Administration Building in Whitehorse on Aug. 21. The Canada Border Services Agency announced Nov. 26 that they have laid charges against six people, including one Government of Yukon employee, connected to immigration fraud that involved forged Yukon government documents. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Charges laid in immigration fraud scheme, warrant out for former Yukon government employee

Permanent residency applications were submitted with fake Yukon government documents

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Karen Wenkebach has been appointed as a judge for the Yukon Supreme Court. (Yukon News file)
New justice appointed

Karen Wenckebach has been appointed as a judge for the Supreme Court… Continue reading

Catherine Constable, the city’s manager of legislative services, speaks at a council and senior management (CASM) meeting about CASM policy in Whitehorse on June 13, 2019. Constable highlighted research showing many municipalities require a lengthy notice period before a delegate can be added to the agenda of a council meeting. Under the current Whitehorse procedures bylaw, residents wanting to register as delegates are asked to do so by 11 a.m. on the Friday ahead of the council meeting. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Changes continue to be contemplated for procedures bylaw

Registration deadline may be altered for delegates

Cody Pederson of the CA Storm walks around LJ’s Sabres player Clay Plume during the ‘A’ division final of the 2019 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament. The 2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament, scheduled for March 25 to 28 in Whitehorse next year, was officially cancelled on Nov. 24 in a press release from organizers. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News file)
2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament cancelled

The 2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament, scheduled for March 25 to 28… Continue reading

Lev Dolgachov/123rf
The Yukon’s Information and Privacy Commissioner stressed the need to safeguard personal information while shopping this holiday season in a press release on Nov. 24.
Information and Privacy Commissioner issues reminder about shopping

The Yukon’s Information and Privacy Commissioner Diane McLeod-McKay stressed the need to… Continue reading

Most Read