Entries in environment (1)


Hydraulic Fracturing - Squeezing oil and gas from rocks

One of the great things about living in a University town is the continuing education opportunities that exist on campuses. Last night I attended a lecture by hydro-geologist Maurice Dusseault. It was meant for geology professionals (which I am not) and the general public (which I am albeit with a science degree).

The topic, so newsworthy today, was hydraulic fracturing. The professor was, thankfully, an animated type full of enthusiasm for his profession and the topic.

Initially, he was so passionate about the wonderful world of fracking and the tremendous resource that this process produces, I worried that I was in for a long night of preaching by a fully funded mouthpiece for the oil and gas industry.  What happened to a balanced academic approach?  Who knows, maybe all geologists share in this ‘wow, look at the energy bounty of the earth, let’s go get it!’ mentality.

As he proceeded to show chart after chart, graphs and lovely diagrams of the entire fracking process and the incredible resource of which North America is richly blessed, I had this unsettling impression that here was a man for whom the extraction of resources is akin to breathing. You don’t really think about it, you just do it.   There was absolutely no way that he could ever come to the conclusion that maybe we should leave this stuff in the little cracks in the shale rock. From his point of view, no problem should delay or defer the immediate utilization of this resource. Maybe the problem with the adoption of solar and wind energy is that it is too easy, especially compared to the Herculean efforts required to get that oil and gas out of those shale rocks. And obviously, there isn't enough possible problems with solar and wind, like leaks, contamination, and access, both above and kilometres below the ground to merit any attention, but I digress.

Fortunately, as the lecture proceeded he did present data and information that laid out both the challenges and the benefits of fracking.  

Here’s what I learned about hydraulic fracturing:

1. According to this expert, the shale oil and gas resource in North America, given our advanced extraction technology (and we are truly ahead of the curve on that) is massive, simply massive. During the Q & A I asked about reports that indicate a very quick (within 2 years) and steep decline in shale oil and gas production his figures didn’t seem to take into account. He cheerfully agreed that those reports are probably right and then said; “Well you have to understand, we don’t have years and years of data yet, we are only really going after this resource now.” Huh?

2. While extolling the advances in drilling technology, decreased water use, and better industry regulated practices (IRPs) he stated confidently that “more benign chemicals are used” and then added quickly and quietly that yes, this does add costs and the chemicals still are “not too pleasant.”

3. I found it very interesting that he repeatedly put up a slide and mocked fracking protesters whose signs apparently indicated a high level of ignorance about what was truly problematic with the process. While the media and protesters often focus on the possibility of contamination with ground water, Professor Dusseault made it clear that this was not a major problem.

The two main problems with hydraulic fracturing are the risk of intersecting with offset wells, and the need for better well design and abandonment methods to reduce gas seepage. He stated that there are “not thousands, but tens of thousands of wells that are leaking today.” Somehow I doubt that protestors given these facts would think: “Oh, really? I guess we should stop resisting this, no probs. then.”

One slide listed the following real problems with deep hydrological fracturing:

  • Pathways
  • Facilities leakage
  • Transportation Accidents    Large trucks carrying wastes need to be driven cautiously. The industry does not have a “jerk filter” and has learned that the best way to ensure proper driving of these trucks is to do so in convoy style, forcing all to drive slowly together. It reminded me of the need to have all the kids in preschool hold onto the rope for safe travel from the preschool to the park.
  • Storage facility accidents
  • Surface storage pits leaking
  • Surface casing too high
  • Drilling issues – CH4 seepage behind casings, not sealing wells properly
  • Lack of science, lack of data

Later, he admitted that the entire oil and gas industry has been forced to improve and do better because of the need for social consent. I would argue that the need for social consent was a direct result of people taking to the streets, even if they have some of their facts wrong, there still were problems that garnered an industry response. Given the list of real problems, why be so dismissive of protesters?

4. Gas is replacing coal to produce electricity. This is a good thing. I would have liked him to add that natural gas is also a finite fossil fuel that must help us transition to a truly sustainable energy generation model.

5. He put up a map of Canada that showed the longest pipeline in this country. The Trans Canada Pipeline (TCPL) carries natural gas from BC across 5 provinces to Quebec. He believes this will be converted to an oil pipeline and Ontario will soon be purchasing natural gas from US instead of BC.  BC has lots of natural gas and is building terminals to transport it to Asian markets. This might be one of the main reasons BC has no interest in helping Alberta carry their crude to the coast.

6. Risk = Probability X Consequences

7. The professor concluded with the following:

Energy and Environment are often:




Although I learned a great deal from his hour-long lecture, and agree with the above sentiments, I’m not sure he cleared up the dilemma that is hydraulic fracturing.