Unconventional natural gas

Can better technology make fracking cleaner?

Special to The Globe and Mail

A typical fracking set-up. Trican Well Service Ltd. has developed a non-toxic fracking fluid. (Trican Well Service Ltd.)

There have been significant technological advances in the search for and development of unconventional natural gas in relatively shallow but hard-to-reach deposits across North America, but the speed of development has set off alarms among environmentalists and landowners who want more oversight.

“Fracking has been done in North America, primarily in the United States since the 1950s,” says Dave Williams, head of media relations for Shell Canada Ltd. Indeed, the first successful unconventional production was in 1949. “But it’s in the last decade where we’ve learned a good deal, and it’s the same for horizontal drilling.”

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Improvements and communication are important because the staggering growth in unconventional gas production is changing the landscape and the economy across North America. Technology is moving forward quickly, and the industry says it is committed to new disclosure policies about chemicals used to produce unconventional gas.

Three years ago, unconventional gas made up 15 per cent of worldwide production, according to the International Energy Agency. By 2040, unconventional gas production will satisfy 80 per cent of North American demand, ExxonMobil Corp. estimates. After the United States and Russia, Canada is the world’s third-largest natural gas producer (of all types).

Critics worry about the amounts of water used for unconventional gas production, the chemicals that are injected into wells, the effects on surrounding land and air from a major gas play, possible earthquakes and tremors and whether using more gas means prolonging or increasing the world’s addiction to fossil fuels.

“It’s a complex issue, and there are all kinds of concerns for a lot of different reasons,” says Adam Goehner, technical analyst for the Pembina Institute, a Canadian environmental research and watchdog organization.

Shell’s Mr. Williams, as well as oil services companies such as Trican Well Service Ltd., and industry umbrella groups such as the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) say that they understand these concerns and are trying to respond.

“We try to keep an open dialogue,” says Geoff Morrison, CAPP’s manager of operations for British Columbia. Some of Canada’s regulations and voluntary disclosure practices put the Canadian industry ahead of the United States, he says.

Two technologies are key to producing unconventional gas – hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and horizontal drilling. Fracking uses water, sand and chemicals, which are injected at high pressure into rock to form tiny cracks, which can release gas. Horizontal drilling is what it sounds like – instead of going straight down, wellbores can turn on a 90-degree angle and go sideways or diagonally, extracting gas from previously overlooked formations.

Many in the industry believe that new methods have been developed that will make it more possible for environmentalists to live with these technologies and the gas it produces.

Trican, one of the main suppliers of equipment and materials to the unconventional gas industry in North America, has developed a fracking fluid that is officially classified as non-toxic, says Dave Browne a 20-year veteran of unconventional gas production with Trican. “It can pass a drinking water test.”

Trican’s fluid, called TriFac-MLT, enables unconventional gas producers to use less fresh and more recycled water in production. It is salt-tolerant (salt builds up in fracking water, requiring additional fresh water).

Mr. Morrison and Mr. Browne also point out that in February, nine companies in the gas sector (later joined by three more) agreed to a Working Energy Commitment that includes a code of conduct, a commitment to better communication with the public and disclosure of chemicals used in unconventional gas production.

CAPP also supports disclosure, and has issued its own operating practice policy for its members, asking that they disclose publicly the base fluids and chemical additives they inject into wells and cracks. The practice is voluntary, but CAPP says all of its members comply, and it is consistent with federal regulations that have increased the requirement for disclosure.

Is this enough to satisfy all environmentalists?

“No,” says Ben Parfitt, a B.C.-based writer and environmental researcher.

In 2010, Mr. Parfitt presented a paper at the University of Toronto Munk School of Global Affairs Program on Water Issues that concluded unconventional gas development “could potentially threaten important water resources.” Mr. Parfitt, now concentrating on B.C.’s burgeoning liquid natural gas (LNG) development, acknowledges the unconventional gas industry’s technology improvements, but he remains unmoved.

“There is better oversight in terms of water usage,” he says. “But the big picture in terms of how much water is being used over all, and greenhouse gas emissions, is not being addressed.”

Mr. Williams, however, points with pride to Shell Canada’s water treatment plant in Dawson Creek, B.C., which opened last year and serves Shell’s Groundbirch facility, with five natural gas processing plants and more than 250 wells.

The water plant treats 4,000 cubic metres of sewage water a day (equivalent to 12,000 households), diverting waste water that was discharging into the creek that runs through the community, 1,200 kilometres northeast of Vancouver.

The water is treated to a standard that’s considered suitable for industrial and municipal uses. The City of Dawson Creek uses the treated water for cleaning roads and watering sports fields, and Shell pipes a share of the water 48 kilometres for its unconventional gas production.

The piped wastewater is stored in ponds and then mixed with recycled water at Shell’s production facility; the company estimates that this partnership with Dawson Creek will eliminate three million truck trips a year in the full course of this gas field’s development.

“It means we don’t have to take water from the river, and it gets trucks off the roads,” Mr. Williams says.