Hydraulic Fracturing in New Brusnwick
October 1, 2015
When Brian Gallant was first elected as Premier of New Brusnwick and subsequently imposed a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, I was very disappointed to say the least because I thought that meant that hydraulic fracturing was dead for the foreseeable future. The moratorium was unwarranted as there have been no environmental incidents to date with any of the currently producing wells in New Brunswick. The implementation of the moratorium was a political decision, no more, no less. Now that a provincial commission has been established to review this matter and is seeking public and private opinion, I am somewhat reassured and feel that at least now there may be a chance for the industry to make its case. I just hope the public is willing to listen.
Hydraulic fracturing has certainly been the subject of a lot of controversy and generates so much emotion on the opposing side that it is very difficult to get to the facts and make rational decisions accordingly. Do people have the right to be concerned? Absolutely. Do people have the right to ask questions? Absolutely. But to reject hydraulic fracturing from the outset without asking these questions or raising these concerns is closing the door to an opportunity that could boost the province’s economy and put it on the road to becoming a “have” province.
As far as I know, most of the opposition to hydraulic fracturing is based on misconceptions and horror stories they hear of in the media. What most people tend to overlook are the 49 or so wells that have been hydraulically fractured in New Brusnwick since 1990 without incident. If there had been even one environmental incident, I am fairly certain it would have been subject to a lot of media attention.
There has been a lot of comparison to hydraulic fracturing in Pennsylvania with spectacular videos of people lighting the water coming out of their kitchen faucets to demonstrate the methane gas supposedly generated by hydraulic fracturing. However, the truth be known, the methane gas was a pre-existing condition in most of the domestic fresh water wells in the area due to a methane gas formation close to the water table. And poor quality control in sealing the wells through the water table allowed drilling fluids to escape and force the existing methane gas into people’s homes. A lot of mistakes were made that could have easily been avoided with proper quality control and regulatory oversight.
The shale gas formations in new Brunswick are very deep. In the Frederick Brook formation, hydraulic fracturing occurs between 1500 and 4000 metres below surface compared to a ground water depth of 100-300 metres. And with the hole casing design in use, the opportunity for leakage of drilling fluids into the water table is very very low. At the water table elevation, after the conductor casing, surface casing, intermediate casing, and production casing have been set in place, drilling fluids would have to pass through three steel pipe walls and three walls of concrete to leak into the water table aquifer. Ground water contamination is at risk from poor well construction and not from the hydraulic fracturing. The technology exists for close monitoring of well construction and the provincial government has the authority to establish a system of licensing and reject any license to operate if wells are not properly constructed.
One area of contention is the amount of water consumed in the hydraulic fracturing process. People talk about millions of gallons per well or the billions of gallons of water consumed annually which sounds like a lot of water. But is it really a lot of water? Compared to what? In a paper by Jesse Jenkins, a PhD student and researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, entitled Energy Facts: How Much Water Does Fracking for Shale Gas Consume?, he indicates that all the shale gas wells drilled and completed in the United States in 2011 consumed on the order of 135 billion gallons of water, equivalent to about 0.3 percent of total U.S. freshwater consumption. He also indicates that the coal industry uses up to 10 times more water in coal mining and washing, and onshore oil production up to 50 times more water than shale gas. If shale gas was used to generate electricity at a combined cycle gas plant and displace coal-fired power, the quantity of water consumed per unit of electricity generated could fall by on the order of 80 percent.
Another major issue for those opposing hydraulic fracturing is what happens to the contaminated water that returns to surface. The most common solution is to simply to inject the contaminated water down a disposal well that penetrates deeper than any drinking water resources. More than 90 percent of the water used or produced in oil and gas operations is disposed of in this way. This water is in effect lost but this water consumption is included in the consumption quantities mentioned earlier and does not represent a substantial amount of water. In addition, research is ongoing to find ways to recycle this water as there is a substantial cost benefit to do so.
Comments I have seen about hydraulic fracturing being a thing of the past are also way off the mark. Hydraulic fracturing is being done across the world and close to home as well in Western Canada. British Prime Minister David Cameron, for one, has indicated that the UK “will be going all out for fracking”. This is the future, not the past.
The financial picture in New Brunswick is bleak to say the least. In the face of a debt well excess of $10 billion dollars and continuing deficits in the hundreds of millions of dollars over the last few years, the New Brunswick government has little choice but to consider such controversial cost saving measures as reducing funding to seniors, laying off teachers and other civil servants, making changes to the teachers’ pension plan and worst of all, considering an increase in the HST. Revenues from natural gas would go a long ways in improving this situation.
There are certainly risks associated with hydraulic fracturing as there is with the extraction of any natural resource but in my opinion the risk is very low and one worth taking. Instead of saying “No” to an opportunity for New Brunswick to become a “have” province, we should be embracing the opportunity and showing the world that hydraulic fracturing can be done safely.
Give NB a chance.
Robert J. Lusk, P. Eng.