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A truck driver crosses the street in Fox Creek, Alberta on Thursday, July 2, 2015. (Amber Bracken for The Globe and Mail)
A truck driver crosses the street in Fox Creek, Alberta on Thursday, July 2, 2015. (Amber Bracken for The Globe and Mail)

Earthquakes shake Alberta town’s faith in fracking Add to ...

With dirty pickup trucks in nearly every driveway, advertisements for energy service companies hanging at the local baseball diamond and work camps scattered nearby, Fox Creek cannot hide the fact it is a one-industry town.

One of nearly a dozen communities built during Alberta’s oil rush of the 1950s and 1960s, Fox Creek is at the centre of a hydraulic fracturing boom. The process, known as fracking, injects a high-pressure fluid into a well to crack rock and increase the flow of oil and gas.

About 90 per cent of the town’s 2,100 permanent residents work directly or indirectly for the energy companies that are looking for oil and natural gas in the surrounding Duvernay shale formation.

While hydraulic fracturing has taken off in the United States, Canada’s shale plays have been disappointing. The Duvernay could change that. Chevron, Shell, Exxon and other major players are investing billions of dollars in the hills around Fox Creek, sinking more than 700 wells in the past three years.

But the people of Fox Creek are wondering about the costs of that potential windfall. It was once a seismically stable area with about one measurable earthquake a year. More than 160 have been detected since December, 2013, about the time hydraulic fracturing began in earnest.

The Alberta Energy Regulator has attributed two earthquakes measuring 4.4 on the Richter scale so far in 2015 to hydraulic fracturing. The two earthquakes are the strongest to be connected to fracking anywhere in the world.

After the second 4.4-magnitude earthquake near Fox Creek on June 13, Alberta’s regulator issued its first stop order based on seismic activity.

People in Fox Creek are unsettled, according to Mayor Jim Ahn. The greatest worry is the tangle of aging pipelines that run by the town, some carrying highly concentrated sour gas, a serious public health risk in the event of a rupture.

“People are scared of the possibility of a bigger earthquake,” Mr. Ahn said. “We have a sour gas pipeline that runs through town. It’s nearly 40 years old, and if there is a major earthquake, people are worried that it or another pipeline would rupture.”

The town council is planning to take its concerns about the pipelines to the energy regulator. The mayor says some families have moved away out of concern.

Councillor Jim Hailes, a retired school administrator, says he is worried, but was pleased the provincial energy regulator acted quickly with its stop order. Like many in town, he cautioned that a balanced approach is needed.

“There is a cause-and-effect from the drilling out there, but the only reason we exist is for the resources around us. If you take away the resources, there is no reason for us to exist,” Mr. Hailes said.

Some in this small town said the tremor just before midnight on Jan. 22 felt like a big truck rumbling past their front doors. It was the first earthquake many had experienced.

The second 4.4 earthquake struck 20 weeks later.

“It didn’t last very long. I was sitting in my room and it just felt like an oversized helicopter was flying above. You could feel the rumbling,” Arden Van Assen said.

A driller based in a work camp south of Fox Creek, Mr. Van Assen said the rest of his drill crew felt the quake and were not surprised when they saw it had been linked with fracking. “I thought it might be a possibility. We are putting a lot of holes in the ground.”

Recent seismology conferences have seen a spike in interest around the increasing number of earthquakes being linked to fracking. A number of papers are in the works about a three-fold increase in earthquakes detected since 2010 across energy-rich Western Canada.

“These earthquakes are a new phenomenon. There were less than one or two earthquakes annually in Fox Creek before 2013. The increase has been dramatic,” said Jeffrey Gu, an associate professor of geophysics at the University of Alberta. “There will only be more.”

After the second earthquake, Chrevron was told to stop operations at a fracking pad and submit a plan for reducing the risk of future seismic activity. According to the regulator, neighbouring companies voluntarily ceased operations.

“A 4.4 is felt at surface,” said Ryan Bartlett, a spokesman for the Alberta Energy Regulator. “We saw this as a risk and needing an immediate response.”

Alberta’s regulator wrote its earthquake rules in February after the first 4.4 quake of the year outside Fox Creek. Those new regulations instituted a code for companies to use when they communicate with the regulator about the severity of earthquakes. The code is based on traffic-light colours: Green is given to any quake near a fracking operation that is less than magnitude 2.0 and requires no response; yellow is for quakes between 2.0 and 4.0, for which a response plan is needed; red is for quakes above 4.0 and invokes a stop order.

“We need to balance the benefits that are obtained from resource development against risks,” said Gail Atkinson, Canada Research Chair in Earthquake Hazards at the University of Western Ontario. “We need to be prepared to suspend operations if warranted, as the AER has already suggested.”

The first stop order lasted 16 days. Chevron wrote a protocol to reduce the risk of earthquakes and resumed operations on June 30.

“Chevron is supporting industry efforts to study possible links between oil and gas operations in the Fox Creek area and recent seismic events in the region,” Chevron spokesman Cam Van Ast said in an e-mail. “At this time, we have no information on the cause of the June 13 seismic event.”

While the town’s administration has accepted a link between fracking and earthquakes, some along the main drag remain skeptical.

“I don’t think it was caused by fracking. That’s silly. Earthquakes are way too big for that,” said Rudy Andary, the operator of a local pizza parlour.

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