Photo: More research needed on northeast B.C.'s shale gas boom

(Credit: Google Earth)

By Niki West, energy policy analyst

When you think about northeastern British Columbia, what pops into your head? Maybe a vague notion of pristine wilderness, boreal forest, caribou, grizzly bears and lots of snow? Would you be surprised to learn that the 20.5-million hectares of northeast B.C. extending from the B.C.-Alberta border to the northern Rocky Mountains and stretching from Tumbler Ridge in the south to the Yukon and Northwest Territories border in the north (pdf) is dotted with tens of thousands of oil and gas wells, and criss-crossed by pipelines, seismic lines and access roads? On average, every seven square kilometres has one well. Some areas are fragmented by grids of wells spaced every 200 metres.

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Oil and gas exploration and drilling have taken place in northeastern B.C. for more than 50 years. At the end of the 1960s, 1,700 wells had been drilled (pdf). However, over the past decade, with the advent of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technology, drilling has significantly increased. To date, around 30,000 wells have been drilled in B.C., most of them in the northeast. With a population of about 69,000, (pdf) that's close to one well for every two people.

It takes 15 hours to drive from Vancouver to Fort St. John in ideal conditions, and another five from Fort St. John to Fort Nelson, so it's understandable that many Lower Mainland residents are unaware of the extent of oil and gas development in the northeast. I'm from Alberta, so naturally I thought Alberta was the centre of Canada's oil and gas universe. This is not the case for shale gas. Here are some interesting facts:
  • In 2012, Alberta produced less than one per cent of the amount of shale gas produced by B.C. (Alberta has developed more shale oil and conventional gas resources.)
  • More than 75 per cent of new wells drilled in B.C. are for shale gas. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the technique used to extract natural gas from shale.
  • Over 60 per cent of B.C.'s natural gas production in 2013 came from shale gas. This is the gas that will supply the much-hyped liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry in B.C.
  • Canada is endowed with the fourth-largest amount of technically recoverable shale gas resources in the world, and most of these are in B.C.
Why should we care about the intense pace and scale of shale gas development? To begin with, much of northeast B.C., especially the Peace River region, is already highly developed. A recent David Suzuki Foundation study (pdf) on natural capital in the Peace region found that human activity has had an impact on 67 per cent of the river basin. Land-use change has been brought on by extensive development of the oil and gas, agricultural, forestry, mining and hydropower sectors. The Peace region is the source of 90 per cent of the province's grain and produces 38 per cent of its hydropower. Set against the backdrop of an already highly developed landscape, increasing the pace and scale of shale gas development will create additional and unknown cumulative impacts in northeast B.C.

In addition, the environmental impacts of shale gas production are not fully understood, especially for B.C.. Shale gas production is different from conventional natural gas production in that wells are drilled horizontally, are very deep and are subjected to multiple high-pressure injections of water, chemicals and sand to carry out the fracking process. These characteristics have led to concerns that fracked wells may be more susceptible to leakage than conventional wells. The fracking process also uses large amounts of water over short periods of time — much of which is lost deep underground — and produces flowback water, which is highly saline and contaminated with naturally occurring and manmade fracking chemicals. Flowback water must be appropriately treated or disposed of in an injection well. Fugitive emissions, or uncaptured methane emissions, have been associated with the release of flowback water and other well-pad processes. Though many studies over the past few years have examined the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing, much uncertainty still surrounds the magnitude of fugitive emissions and their contribution to climate change, the existence and incidence rate of groundwater contamination and the cumulative impacts of rapid development.

Unlike conventional natural gas wells, fracked wells tend to decline in production after a year, with some wells having lifespans of only a few years, necessitating continuous drilling of more and more new wells. Because of this, and because so many knowledge gaps exist on the environmental impacts of shale gas development, there is a need for unbiased research, rooted in sound science, that aims to dispel the myths surrounding fracking and fill key knowledge gaps. It is through high-quality research that we can figure out what is really going on both above and below ground, and make better-informed decisions about how to proceed with shale gas development.

September 19, 2014

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