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A pump jack draws oil from the ground at a hydraulic fracturing operation near Bowden, Alta. (Jeff McIntosh/Jeff McIntosh for The Globe and Mail)
A pump jack draws oil from the ground at a hydraulic fracturing operation near Bowden, Alta. (Jeff McIntosh/Jeff McIntosh for The Globe and Mail)

Fear of fracking: How public concerns put an energy renaissance at risk Add to ...

Chad Winters keeps his hand on his radio, politely giving orders to co-workers toiling at an oil property in a stretch of Alberta farmland.

“One tonne of 40/70,” Mr. Winters requests over the radio. “Three thirty-three, then hold till I tell you otherwise.”

Mr. Winters speaks a language few understand. He runs the show in the field when Trican Well Service Ltd. is called in to perform a controversial technique used to gather oil and natural gas from impermeable rocks.

On this day, Trican is working for NAL Energy Corp. near Bowden, about 100 kilometres north of Calgary. Trican is there to pump water, chemical and natural additives, and nitrogen down a well at frighteningly high pressure, with hopes of forcing fissures in the rocks thousands of metres below the surface. Sand will follow, propping open the cracks, allowing trapped oil to escape. The process is called hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking.

Mr. Winters sits in the site’s computer van as he calls out changes to fracking fluid mixtures to his workers, eyeing a large-screen TV relaying data from above and below ground. Computer monitors manned by other team members fill the van. Mr. Winters has worked his way up through Trican; his days of spitting sand out of his teeth and keeping chemicals away from his eyes are over.

The pipes outside the van are pulsating as the pumper trucks shoot the fracking fluid down the well. The air smells of diesel exhaust due to the row of trucks powering the operation.

Then it goes quiet inside the van. Everyone focuses on their screens, watching coloured lines move their way up the graph. Pressure levels are nearing the danger zone. But finally the rock below cracks, and there’s a sense of relief in the van as chatter resumes. “That was a bit stressful,” says Lance Berg, an NAL executive on site.

The Trican crew is part of a growing army that is bringing 21st-century technology to the job of recovering crude oil and natural gas from far below the ground. Using computer-assisted drilling and fracking techniques, the energy industry is in the early stages of a revolution that has overturned decades-old assumptions about North America’s depleting oil and gas resources.

But the industry is now at a critical crossroads. It must prove that fracking is environmentally safe, before a growing public backlash stops the practice in its tracks or seriously slows development of massive new oil and gas pools trapped in shale rock and tight formations. At stake is North America’s energy renaissance, which promises the security of vast untapped local supplies previously seen as inaccessible, along with major economic spinoff effects that go far beyond direct jobs in the oil patch.

The public fear of fracking has come to encompass all the risks associated with development of shale gas and tight oil: from seepage of fracking fluids into aquifers, to methane in well water, to pollution from wastewater, and to earthquakes caused by re-injecting the wastewater underground.

Whether drilling wells and fracking is environmentally destructive remains a raging debate. A panel established by U.S. President Barack Obama last year concluded that there are “serious environmental impacts” from new high-tech oil and gas development. Industry officials insist that the risks are minimal, and say fracking’s effects are misunderstood.

At a conference this week in Houston, the panel’s chairman, John Deutch – a professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and former director of the Central Intelligence Agency – said the unconventional oil and gas boom offers “astonishingly important benefits” for North America. But he added a warning to the industry.

“Unless the environmental impacts associated with shale gas and oil from shale in the United States are not only acknowledged but addressed in a serious practical way,” he said, “there is a very real danger that the great benefits we should be enjoying from this unconventional production will be delayed, or even stopped, because of public concern and public opposition.”

But the Deutch panel said the industry and its government regulators have the means to reduce the risks to acceptable levels, so long as they act decisively.

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