New Brunswick

Shale gas is a sorry choice

Lynda Murray describes her concerns with the potential development of the shale gas industry in New Brunswick.

A special series of essays from citizens on the issue of shale gas exploration

Lynda Murray lives with her family in rural New Brunswick.

Before settling in New Brunswick, Murray lived in Toronto, Los Angeles and Montreal.

Less than a year ago, Murray began researching the impact the shale gas industry has had across North America. That research has caused her to become concerned with its potential impact on New Brunswick.

I came here by accident after living in Toronto, Los Angeles and Montreal. Rural New Brunswick was not where I expected to settle. I visited and returned home, but the images lingered. The rolling hills, the forests and everywhere you look, the rich flowing water.

I kept imagining what it would be like to live here. Within a few years, I had traded my home in Montreal, for a farm in rural New Brunswick and a log cabin on a river, the magnificent Miramichi.

New Brunswick has been good to us. We own two businesses, we work hard and expect no less.

Between us we have four children, two with university degrees and two are entrepreneurs. One has left the province, one is poised to leave, two have remained.

Out-of-province work experience is not a negative, on the contrary, it is a vital education about the outside world.

My siblings work and live in three different states, not highly unusual. Demanding that the government feed you jobs on a silver spoon, so you can remain in one place, is not realistic in this day and age.

Quite by accident, we discovered that our residential farmland had been leased to Windsor Energy Corporation and our Miramichi cottage area to SWN, for shale gas exploration. Thus began a 10-month research project to understand the technology behind high volume, slick water, horizontal drilling.

My curiosity was piqued at the mention of benzene, both in fracturing fluid and as an air emission of gas processing facilities. Working five years in a research laboratory at McGill University, I used benzene and other chemical solvents on a daily basis.  Laboratory safety measures were rigid to avoid breathing vapours from even test tube amounts of the highly carcinogenic benzene. 

How do you combine even small percentages of chemicals like benzene in millions of gallons of water and control the ultimate destination of the fluids? At the very weakest percentage claimed by industry, one fracturing could involve three million gallons of water, containing 15,000 gallons of chemicals, all seeking the path of least resistance underground. How do essential gas processing facilities vent benzene combined with other volatile organic chemicals into the air, without creating a health hazard?  I have not found those answers.

Searching for answers

I sought reassurances that this technology was safe, desperately wanting to believe industry rhetoric. Who wants to discover that the air, water and land they depend upon for health and welfare, will be jeopardized? Research the history of unconventional shale gas extraction and the facts speak for themselves.

The combination of high volume, slick water, directional drilling into one technology, is barely 10 years old. It is still an inexact science and New Brunswick will be part of the experiment. 

State Departments of Environmental Protection record the violations in the activities of the natural gas industry in the U.S. shale plays.

During the first eight months of 2011, the Pennsylvania DEP cited faulty well casing and cementation violations on 65 wells, one more than was issued for the entire year of 2010.

Pennsylvania’s rate of environmental impact incidents, is one for every 150 wells drilled, translate that to the goal of 3,000 wells per year in Pennsylvania.

In Clark, Wyo., and Dimock, Pa., the industry has been held accountable for aquifer contamination by the respective state agencies.

Windsor Energy Group LLC.’s repeated efforts to clean both the deep and shallow drinking aquifers it contaminated in Clark have been ongoing for five years.  Levels of benzene are still registering in the deep aquifer.

Cabot Oil has settled for 4.6 million to owners of contaminated water wells and to the state for the cost of the investigation in Dimock. Federal environmental agencies have warned some residents next to gas wells in the Pavillion, Wyoming shale play, to avoid drinking, showering or doing laundry with their well water.

The water is contaminated and highly explosive (methane testing has traced the origin back to the gas wells).

'No such thing as zero impact drilling'

The geology of shale gas deposits requires concentrated drilling with many wells in one area. Only certain wells will find the "sweet spot" and produce economically viable gas.  Do not expect to see the traditional spacing between conventional wells, used in Alberta. 

Alberta Energy Board has said, "as of July 2011 shale gas production in Alberta has not used the horizontal drilling with multi stage fracturing methodology used in other jurisdictions, instead shale gas development in Alberta has occurred primarily through the use of vertical wells, as well as a few horizontal wells."

To be precise, they had only five shale gas connections in 2000, increased to 142 in 2010.  Alberta changed their well space regulatory framework on Oct. 6, 2011, to allow wells to be placed in closer proximity. Yet, industry claims they have years of experience with this technology in Alberta?

You will learn that there is no such thing as zero impact drilling. Negative impacts accumulate, as drilling zones become more concentrated.

Wyoming failed to meet U.S. air quality regulation standards for the first time, as air pollution around their rural shale play now rivals Los Angeles.

Within 10 years, independent air quality testing in the Dish, Texas shale play, has shown benzene levels up to 55 times the parts per million (ppm) considered safe for humans to breathe. Gas royalties in Arkansas will not cover road damage repairs.

One Pennsylvania resident counted 750 trucks passing in front of his house in a 24-hour period.

Gas processing facilities vent dangerous levels of airborne chemicals, drilling goes on 24/7 creating noise, extreme truck traffic and road damage, all contribute to the decrease of adjacent property values. Add to that, the potential health risks of a surface spill, or faulty well casing, which could contaminate your drinking water and render your property worthless. 

Newfound activism

I have never belonged to an environmental group and I have never protested anything, until now. 

You will quickly learn that we have few rights under the split estate system. The government’s ownership of mineral resources, trumps the landowner’s rights to control the surface. 

If a landowner declines having a gas well drilled on their property, the company may seek expropriation, by applying to our Department of Natural Resources.     

The lectures of Anthony Ingraffea, an engineering professor at Cornell University, are very informative. Recognized as a leading pioneer of the unconventional fracturing technology used to access tight shale gas, he was a consultant to the industry for over 25 years. He is opposed to the shale gas rush. 

He advised our minister of Natural Resources against proceeding with the exploitation of New Brunswick’s shale gas reserves. His point being that the science of dealing with millions of litres of toxic flow back and wastewater, has not yet caught up to this technology. 

Attend the shale gas meetings throughout rural New Brunswick, and you cannot fail to see the stress this issue has placed upon families.

Many people cannot sleep for the fear of what is to come. It has not escaped their notice that they live outside the safety of town ordinances, where the industry can operate with impunity.

Do you wait to find out, if they drill, where they drill, what the impacts will be? Will you have a gas compressor station within sight, sound and breathing range of your family?  Or do you leave while your land still has value, leaving behind home, family and friends.

A sorry choice for those who have contributed their life’s labour to developing and improving their piece of New Brunswick.