New Brunswick

Scientific fact vs. public fears on water issues

Syracuse University professor Donald Siegel writes that Canada does not have to worry that the gas industry, if regulated properly, will systemically harm water supplies.

A series of special op-eds on the shale gas industry

Donald Siegel holds the Laura J. and L. Douglas Meredith Professorship of Earth Sciences at Syracuse University.

He Chairs the Water Science and Technology Board of the National Research Council (NRC) of the United States National Academy of Sciences.

Siegel also served as a member of a blue-ribbon NRC panel convened to evaluate the environmental problems associated with the production of coal-bed methane throughout the western United States.

The public in New Brunswick should not fear that their water supplies and their air quality will be compromised because of hydro-fracking. There may be other issues worthy of public debate on whether unconventional gas should be part of Canada’s future energy, including the extent to which alternative energy sources plausibly can be used instead of fossil fuels.

There may also be local issues worthy of discussion related to potential changes in community lifestyles coming with new gas infrastructure and the influx of financial resources.

But I consider it disingenuous and wrong to use any means to achieve a political ends on these kinds of issues. Canada’s waters will not be systemically compromised by shale gas development although, as with any long and well-established industry, there may be rare cases of local human error leading to local problems.

I am not marginalizing local, rare problems. It would be wonderful to have large industries risk-free. But they are not, be it food production to delivering energy.

Facts on hydro-fracking

Here are the facts on water and hydrofracking for natural gas. 

The amount of water per well used for hydrofracking sounds large (several million gallons), but is insignificant compared to the water supply in any small to mid-sized stream in the humid northeast of North America.

Most streams flow at rates of tens of thousands of gallons per minute, even at times of low water (see: report). The changes in streamflow caused by water extraction for fracking would be practically immeasurable, even if water for multiple shale gas wells were extracted at the same time from the same stream.

Donald Siegel and Anthony Ingraffea, a Cornell University professor, will discuss hydro-fracking at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday on CBC Radio's Shift with Paul Castle.

If water levels did happen to drop from water removal from the smallest of streams, the decline would pale in comparison to what happens even during a minor drought, when water levels drop for consecutive weeks to months.

And, after fracking has ceased, streamflow returns to normal levels. The same kind of analysis can be made for lakes and large aquifers.

Hydro-fracking does not create fractures that extend upward through thousands of feet of dry solid rock and rock filled with water many times more salty than seawater.

Hydro-fracking causes paper-thin fractures to form in shale beds by tiny amounts of energy release.  Scientists and and engineers fully know that these many tiny fractures do not move upwards very far (see: Massachussets Institute of Technology report). Indeed, the fundamental physics showing the relationship between the energy produced when a paper-thin fracture forms in shale-gas beds and the fracture shows it cannot happen (see: report).

Might affect shallow waters

Gas drilling might affect the quality of shallow waters if the cement that seals the vertical pipe fails. Then, deep gas can move up the outside of the production pipe.

This situation has happened in some places, given the hundreds of thousands of gas wells that have been drilled and hydrofracked (see: MIT report).

In a few of these rare cases, enough gas has entered water supplies to allow drinking water to be set on fire, an circumstance that has been effectively highlighted by the hydrofracking opposition through engaging video (e.g. Gasland).

Some argue that the cement in wells will inherently fail, leading to gas migration upward. But leakage is limited since the very pressures that force the gas out of the shale would no longer be present as production declines and after production ceases.

Could there be some minor leakage of gas upward through failed cement after the fact? Yes. Could it plausibly be a major problem. No.   

Local spills

Spills of flowback water on the landscape do cause harm to local vegetation and ecosystems.

Flowback water consists of highly salty water, called brine, produced with the gas when wells initially come online.

Spills have happened in the past when drillers were allowed to store flowback in open pits. These pits could overflow or fail. In some places municipalities have used their local water treatment facilities to process flowback prior to releasing it to drinking water supplies.

Standard treatment does not remove salinity and some other components in the flowback. Even in these cases, however, no regulatory standards have been violated in municipal water supplies to my knowledge.

But the fear remains, and so in Pennsylvania, discharge of future flowback waters no longer will be permitted unless the salts in them are removed  (see: Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection report).

All these past practices handling flowback are just that — practices of the past.

Gas companies now can reuse flowback water in subsequent drilling, and the small amount of flowback left over can be completely processed by using high-tech water treatment approaches. T

hese practices are now being initiated in Pennsylvania and elsewhere around the country (see: report). I see no reason why flowback re-use and similar regulatory controls should not be insisted upon in Canada too were unconventional gas production allowed.

A new debate

Most of all, I would like to see the public debate on shale-gas methane in Canada rise above that which I have seen in New York and Pennsylvania. Here, opponents have successfully twisted water and other science to frighten thousands of citizens in the United States.

Opponents have cobbled together gas problems in completely different geologic settings than found in northeastern United States to create a dramatic story line implying identical geology and circumstances, and that past practices will be those used today. 

This is wrong. Ask them to explain why, for example, the geology at Pavillion, Wyoming would be the same as that in New Brunswick. Ask them why the faulty drilling procedures done at Dimock, Pennsylvania, will be the norm in New Brunswick.

Be careful of those using the word "possibly." Anything is possible. Ask opponents if what they say is plausible or probable given industry advances in technology and probably regulatory practice.

Hold them to the fire. Ask them to show you data, not hearsay, and watch out for conspiracy theories ("It’s out there but the gas companies won’t tell us."). This rhetorical trick never ends, because "it" will always be "out there."

Plenty of information on the history of the gas industry is available from state regulatory agencies and others who have dealt with the oil and gas industry for decades.

Opponents have even suggested that the diesel emissions of drilling rigs located a mile apart will somehow cause harm to those breathing air remote from them, let alone next to them. How can this be?

Ask them to give an example of equivalent harm. Ask them if the harm is the same as that experienced by people living in town with roads on them carrying trucks, or in small cities.

Perhaps the emissions from even off road vehicles. Ask them for data and reports other than found on adversarial websites to show harm. Be careful of the "possible word" in this discussion too.

Opponents have used the term "industrialization of a landscape" with respect to new shale gas development, which sends a rhetorical mental image of dense roads, high-rises and big factories coming to rural areas.

Does this make sense with rigs a full mile apart, connected by a road or two? Much of southwestern New York State has a gas well drilled every quarter mile—already. Yet, this place remains rural, with farms and wineries. Why would drilling platforms a mile apart lead to more industrialization?

Opponents argue that tens of thousands of wells will be drilled, implying that this will come quickly.

Ask them how that can happen, given that gas exploration largely involves drilling local rich deposits unless the price of gas skyrockets, something hardly in the future given the volumes of gas produced world-wide. 

And even if tens of thousands of wells were drilled, the drilling would be slow and paced for 30 years, if not more, given that there are multiple shale basins being exploited at the same time and only a limited number of rigs in North America.

Opponents argue that "more research" is needed on this "new" process of fracking and horizontal drilling that has been done about 20,000 times already.

Ask them what further research they suggest—specific research—not blandishments, and what would be the bar that the gas industry has to jump over to satisfy the opposition.

How many more wells would have to be drilled before they would view the process safe enough? Would the research bar be so high that industry could not reach it in a reasonable time?

I have been told that science education in Canada has not suffered the fate now prevalent in the United States, so maybe opposition scare tactics won’t get as much purchase as they have in the United States.

But at the least, Canada does not have to worry that the gas industry, if regulated properly, will systemically harm water supplies. It won’t.

(Hyperlinks contained in this article were provided by the author.)