Wednesday, February 8, 2012

No Fracking Signs Are Here

No Fracking signs are showing up all over the North Shore, and there have been rallies, and information meetings, and articles in the newspapers and letter-writing campaigns. People are vitally concerned about the possibility of fracking on the North Shore, and our provincial government has not responded to us. They have offered very large blocks of land for exploration leases, and they say to us merely that no-one has yet taken up those leases so we have no cause for concern. This dismays me.

Fracking is very bad business. Hydraulic fracturing, as it is technically known, is a process of forcing water and chemicals and sand down a bored well to fracture the rock along the path of the bore so that embedded natural gas or oil will flow and can be extracted. The issues for residents of the North Shore are these:

Fracking uses many millions of litres of water per well, and about 90% of the water comes back up the bore and must be recovered and treated. We currently have 15 million litres of waste water  in lagoons in Gore, left over from drilling operations there. The owners of the water and the NS Government are in a standoff, as the owner wants to re-inject the water in to the earth and the government wants them to move the wastewater overland and have it treated. This alone is a major issue, and on our Nova Scotia scale it is the moral equivalent of the enormous tailings ponds in the Alberta tarsands.

There are concerns over the contamination of the groundwater by the fracking water. This is not unknown, and it is very dangerous. The fracking water contains many chemicals that no-one wants in their drinking water. Industry shills say that the potential for groundwater contamination is very low, but that will be small consolation when the damage is done. There are reliable reports coming out of the USA and western Canada of groundwater contaminations.

Industry says that an acceptable way to dispose of the waste fracking water is to pump it into the earth many miles down. This is on the face of it a stupid idea: let us use the earth as a sink for our industrial wastes. I thought that we were past that. There are reports of earthquake tremors in the vicinity of three disposal wells in Ohio, where, unbelievably, the State permitted waste water to be imported into the state and disposed of. Industry shills called the tremors a good thing, as it was releasing geologic pressure in a controlled way.

The pressure used to pump fracking fluids downhole is so great that any weakness in the rock can let the fluids move in unpredictable ways. In Alberta earlier this month a standard stripper oil well, usually pumping a few barrels a day, was hydraulically connected to a fracking well several kilometres away and the resulting release of pressure destroyed the well and sprayed oil and fracking fluid over a very large area. Fortunately, no-one was hurt.

And then there is simply the presence of industrial sites, with wellheads, access roads, water storage lagoons, increased truck traffic, and the need to construct a pipeline if any quantities of gas are found. All of these uses take up a lot of space, and are incompatible with residential and agricultural uses, especially since the drillers would need to find many millions of litres of fresh water to do their work.

In the past few weeks several major gas companies in the USA have announced that they are moving away from drilling shale gas wells and into plays that have more liquids, whether crude oil or natural gas liquids. The reasons are three-fold: unbelievably low gas prices, very high depletion rates (the gas almost stops flowing within a year), and a shortage of investment capital (the bubble has burst). The growing realisation in the USA is that tightly bound gas (shale gas) is never going to produce gas in the volumes that traditional loosely-bound gas wells will. But those gas wells have all been drilled.

Here in Nova Scotia, fracked gas will never amount to much production. If it were a good resource it would have been developed years ago. Back in the 1990's there was talk of developing coalbed methane resources in Springhill and in Pictou County, but they have come to nothing. Part of the reason is that gas has to flow under its own pressure - you don't pump it out of the ground. If it is trapped in dense rock, there is no pressure to make it move through the rock. Fracking releases only the gas in the vicinity of the well, and that's not enough to make money.

But shale gas plays are not really about producing gas; they are about flipping properties to other investors. And that's where the potential for great mischief comes in. A junior exploration company would like to come here and drill a few wells and prove a resource and then flip the leases to larger players, who can produce the wells. More likely, investors in the larger companies would lose their money, as is happening all over the USA. But the junior players, the ones first in, can make a buck. Lots of them, sometimes.

This is what scares me. If the leases are let without fracking being explicitly prohibited, then the instant a company starts to spend money they will feel that they have a moral right to frack the lease. And our NDP government (which I used to support) does not stand up to anyone except citizens and taxpayers. So fracking will occur.

Back in the 1980's when companies were exploring for uranium there was a similar outcry. Capped exploration bore-holes allowed deep water to mix with groundwater. And the uranium was so sparse that the mines would have to be huge open pits with great tailings dumps and toxic settling ponds. So the government of the day impaneled a Royal Commission, and ultimately enacted a moratorium on uranium exploration.

How did it happen that the government of the people has ceased to protect us and our homes, our communities and our livelihoods?

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