N.B. has huge shale gas potential: LaPierre says

2/7/2013

Dr. Louis LaPierre was speaking publicly about shale gas exploration yesterday, not an unusual occurrence since his report on the industry was released last fall, but his speech this week came at a particularly interesting time.

On Tuesday, a scathing report raising doubts about federal monitoring of resource extraction activities, including the shale gas industry, was released by the Office of the federal Auditor General.

And last Thursday, Premier David Alward announced LaPierre would head a new independent energy institute that will create a credible alternative to government and industry in both conducting research and monitoring the shale gas industry.

While it may be reassuring to hear the provincial government talking tough ahead of the industry really taking root in New Brunswick, it’s not so reassuring to hear the much larger and more powerful federal government has been neglecting its duties to safeguard the environment, according to Canada’s commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, Scott Vaughan.

Vaughan’s report is largely focused on offshore exploration, but the commissioner also encouraged the federal government to get a better grip on the risks associated with the practice of hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking.

There are some 200,000 fracking wells in Canada, and that number is expected to double in the next 20 years, the report says. However, oil and gas exploration and drilling activities are exempt from reporting releases of pollutants to Environment Canada.

That, said Vaughan, means “the government cannot know if Canadians are adequately protected.”

LaPierre spoke at the invitation of the Moncton Probus Club yesterday, telling the nearly 100 members gathered about the potential benefits and risks of shale gas exploration and hydraulic fracturing.

Depending on how deep New Brunswick’s reserves prove to be and the means used to get at them, “we have the potential for as much gas in New Brunswick as there is in Alberta.”

He talked about the chemicals used in fracking and repeated calls in his report The Path Forward, commissioned last year by the provincial government, that the new energy institute would maintain a database of all chemicals readily available to emergency responders and health providers. As LaPierre already noted in his report, New Brunswick’s current regulations already make disclosure of fracking chemicals mandatory.

The question that can only be answered once widespread hydraulic fracturing is happening in New Brunswick is whether or not enforcement of regulations will be appropriate.

Chemicals are used along with water and sand in tracking for four main reasons, LaPierre told his audience. The main goal is to reduce friction, but antibacterial agents and hydrochloric acid are also needed to keep fracks flowing. Two common salts, potassium chloride and sodium chloride, the latter being table salt, are used to neutralize the swelling action of clay.

In a typical frack at the shale level about two kilometres underground, 70 per cent of the water used remains underground forever.

“There’s no evidence today that any of that water comes back to the surface,” LaPierre said. “Once the well is finished, it’s capped and plugged.”

Cementing the entire well is costly and companies don’t want to do it, but in the future that may be what the province may decide to demand. LaPierre noted there is promising research on installing shutoff valves at various depths, and even on the horizontal lengths of pipe that branch out from the vertical bore down at the shale level.

The chemical concentration in a typical tracking solution is only about 0.5 per cent. That’s not much at first glance, but it must be remembered that even a small percentage of a vast quantity can add up to significant amounts. It may in fact be the amount of water required to frack a well that’s more worrisome. LaPierre explained it takes about 4,000 cubic metres, or four million litres, of water for each stage of tracking one well. A well, he said, can require anywhere from five to 15 stages.

“To frack 200 wells, we’d need 0.03 per cent of the freshwater in New Brunswick, but we can also use seawater.”

He said there may be a source of fracking water in what’s being pumped out of the potash mines in the Sussex area, water that is now being pumped to the Bay of Fundy. As well, rainfall drops an estimated 80 trillion cubic metres of water on New Brunswick each year.

Asked why the province might want to consider pursuing more fossil fuel in a world facing climate change, LaPierre cited the limitations of wind and solar and other energy sources as they stand now and said he expected carbon-based energy would continue to be important in our lifetimes.

“We have to move away from carbon, but the world has to keep turning,” he said.

(Telegraph Journal)