Four Things to Know about HF Incident in Canada

This week, the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) in Canada released information about an incident in Alberta involving oil and gas development and hydraulic fracturing. As with any news of this nature, opponents have been quick to seize on it as “proof” that “oil and gas companies cannot adequately manage the risks” of development. We know that’s false — the safety record of tight oil and gas development speaks for itself — but we also know that anti-shale activists will try to leverage the event into as much media attention as possible. We’ve seen this movie before.

Before leaping to those conclusions, though – how about we try something different this time around? Instead of limiting your understanding of the event to just what was crammed into a news headline, we’re going to take a look at the actual facts of the case: and let those lead us wherever they may go. Here are four of the biggest ones included in ERCB’s report:

Fact One: This was not a failure of hydraulic fracturing

As the ERCB release notes, the incident occurred in September 2011 when Crew Energy “improperly perforated and hydraulically fractured at a shallow depth.” Put differently, the company perforated the wrong section of the pipe, and did so in proximity to ground water (but not drinking water — more on that below). That’s an important distinction, for reasons that should be obvious: Opponents have been claiming — and will no doubt continue to claim — that hydraulic fracturing occurring a mile or more below drinking water resources poses a serious risk of contamination. That wasn’t true prior to the Alberta incident, and it still isn’t true after it.

Fact Two: No one’s drinking water was impacted in any way

On page 7 of the full report, ECRB states flat-out: “Based on the groundwater monitoring-well data to date, there is insignificant risk to drinking water in the area.” ECRB also concluded: “No compounds indicating the presence of the fracturing fluids were detected in the shallow monitoring well,” which refers to the area’s drinking water reservoir.

The reason drinking water was not impacted was that the incident itself occurred at a depth of 136 meters (446 feet), but the drinking water source (called a domestic use aquifer, or DUA) was at a depth of only 81 meters (265 feet). To put that in perspective, the DUA and the location of the incident were separated by a distance equivalent to the height of an 18-story building. Spanning that distance is a thick layer of sandstone, which isolates the DUA from the impacted ground water zone.

Fact Three: No threat to the public

You might be asking, “If the incident occurred in September 2011, why are we only hearing about it now?” According to an ERCB spokesman, the incident location was not only remote, but — as described above — it also had no impact on the public. Does that mean we should dismiss the incident? Absolutely not. But it is worth highlighting that, contrary to claims about “inherent safety risks” that we hear from dedicated opponents of hydraulic fracturing, even an incident of this nature, which ERCB deemed “very rare,” the impact on people’s everyday lives was essentially non-existent.

Fact Four: Implications for the United States

As with any incident, the industry can learn from the mistakes and hone its operations to make them even safer than they already were. And, establishing smart rules of the road in terms of state regulations is a critical part of that, which is why the industry here in the United States has been proactively advocating for strong but fair regulatory regimes in the states where it is operating.

But the incident also underscores a less appreciated component of the regulatory system in the United States. Individual states remain the best authorities for regulating hydraulic fracturing, chiefly because they have a better understanding of local geology and local community concerns than any regulatory entity in Washington, DC. The Marcellus, for example, is located between 4,000 and 8,500 feet from the surface. The Haynesville in Louisiana, meanwhile, starts at a depth of about 10,000 feet, and development in the Bakken Shale in North Dakota has reached depths exceeding 20,000 feet. (See page 17 of this report from the U.S. Department of Energy and Ground Water Protection Council for depth information on the various shales and tight reservoirs in the United States.)

With so much variability between the different reservoirs among the various states, does anyone really believe that a single entity in Washington, DC — far removed both in proximity and culturally from the areas of development — is the best equipped to regulate this activity?

Numerous reports and independent experts — including federal officials — have stated clearly that hydraulic fracturing can be done safely when proper regulations and operating practices are in place.  That was true in 1949, it was true in 1983, it was true in August 2011, and it’s still true today.  Companies also have high operating standards to ensure drinking water resources are protected.

What happened in Alberta was a “very rare” occurrence, and even though an incident did occur, no one’s drinking water was impacted in any way. No one should claim this incident is insignificant, of course — but those who believe it “proves” the industry cannot adequately manage risks clearly haven’t been paying attention. And as this post explains in crystal clear detail, they certainly did not bother to look at the facts surrounding the incident in question.

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