Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Fracking: Alberta's Imminent Disaster

*This article has been updated. See asterisk at the end of this post.

I recently watched a documentary on CBC News Network called Burning Water (aired in October 2010), about the effects from fracking (hydraulic fracturing) on local well water quality in Alberta. I was deeply disturbed and moved by what I saw and I feel compelled to make an effort here to help educate myself as well as fellow Albertans about this industrial process.

What is fracking?

Alberta (and Saskatchewan) is rich in natural gas. A very large reservoir of this gas is locked up within coal thousands of metres deep underground. It is possible to tap this resource by creating a hydraulic fracture within the shale by pumping very high-pressure fluid into the wellbore. The fluid fractures the coal and rock and creates a large surface area in which the gas can permeate out and be captured. The fluid used is mostly fresh water but it also contains a small percentage of chemicals and it is these chemicals that are creating a major controversy both here and in many areas in the United States where the process is also used to extract gas. There is growing evidence that these chemicals can find their way into local water aquifers and contaminate local water supplies.

Most people in the industry claim that fracking has very little potential to contaminate water aquifers because most aquifers are much less deep than the areas in which the fracking is done. In the United States, a study done by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2004 revealed that there is some uncertainty about how fracturing fluid migrates through rocks, and how the seismic activity, which accompanies such drilling, may affect this migration. An act called the FRAC Act was introduced in the U.S. in 2009 in an attempt to force the fracking industry to reveal exactly what is in their fracking fluids. The industry is currently resisting this bill because it considers the recipes for these fluids to be trade secrets.

There has been no investigation into the potential pollution of aquifers by fracking in Canada.

Why is fracking dangerous?

According to two studies done by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Ground Water Protection Council, chemicals used in fracking may include kerosene, benzene, toluene, xylene and formaldahyde. These chemicals, most of which are solvents, may be used either directly in fracking fluid or in other parts of the job.

Some of these chemicals are extremely dangerous even in very low concentrations in water. Benzene is a carcinogen, toluene and xylene are neurotoxins and formaldehyde is both a toxin and a possible carcinogen.

The Burning Water documentary I watched concentrated on a farming family living near Rosebud in southern Alberta. Encana, Canada's largest gas company, had recently begun drilling several fracking wells under and near their farm and they soon discovered that their well water was causing chemical-like burns on their skin. Their water had always contained some natural methane gas but now it was so saturated with it that it could be lit on fire. They took aquifer samples to independent water testing services and found the presence of both toluene and benzene, two highly toxic chemicals that are not found naturally.

Importantly, they also contacted the company Encana itself, Alberta Environment and the Alberta Research Council and all three determined that the effects the family observed were unrelated to the fracking activity. The family, as well as others nearby, and families on farms near Edmonton as well have had to either haul in water or abandon their farms because the aquifers their wells draw from are contaminated.

What can we do?

I have not found any Canadian documented harmful effects to people or farm animals that are directly tied to fracking activity. But I did find a transcript of an interesting interview conducted with Dr. Theo Colborn by an advocacy group in the U.S. called Democracy Now, which highlights some of the potential toxic effects of the chemicals used in fracking (http://7bends.com/2010/05/26/world-renowned-scientist-illuminates-health-effects-of-water-contamination-from-fracking/).

I am deeply concerned that the Alberta government is unwilling to test for possible effects on our water quality caused by the fracking wells that are now scattered all over our province and it is unwilling to inform Albertans of what it might already know. In the meantime we must ask ourselves if we are willing to wait until the health effects of some of these toxic chemicals becomes clear. When it does become clear, how difficult will it be to remove them from Alberta's water supply even after they have been banned from industrial use?

New York State has banned all fracking activity because legislators there are worried that the water supply of New York City could become irreversibly contaminated. Citizen's groups all over the U.S. as well as in British Columbia have spoken up and banned this activity near their homes.

I think we Albertans need to consider whether we are willing to risk our water supply for the sake of increased provincial gas revenue.

To help you make an informed decision for yourself I recommend two documentaries: Joel Fox’s documentary, Gasland, and Burning Water, a documentary produced for CBC's Passionate Eye series. If you simply enter "fracking" into Google, you will find a wealth of controversy over this industrial process.

Finally, if you are living near any fracking wells and you are concerned about your water quality please take a water sample and have it tested by an independent water-testing lab (University of Alberta or University of Calgary for example).

Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper. Talk to your neighbours. Write a blog.

*Has the fracked gas business bubble already burst? Check out this fascinating New York Times article published June 24, 2011. 


  1. Just wanted to say that We are a company that are concidering technology to reduce well bore casing failure. We must thicken the walls of our wells at greater cost. Good article we will also not allow drilling in faulted formations.

  2. I am so glad to discover people in the industry that are serious about looking for ways to reduce the environmental risks of fracking. Thank you Jacob for your feedback.