by Linita E. Mathew

    Get Your Frack’s Straight

    Energy is one of the most crucial components used to sustain the needs of 21st century citizens. Natural gas and oil are precious resources that are high in demand and essential to helping our everyday lives run smoothly. That being said, large reserves of natural gas are hidden beneath the Earth’s surface and need to be resuscitated using select methods.

    One such technology that has gained popularity for its feasibility and effectiveness in the petroleum extracting process is hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking. Fracking is used to extract natural gas found in shale formations using extreme pressure combined with cracking that results from horizontal drilling.

    Fracking target zones are attacked with large amounts of fluid used to stimulate the rock and gain access to the rich reservoir within. The fluid is often mixed with sand or ceramic beads that help keep the fracture open, allowing natural gas to flow from tightly packed spaces. In Alberta, fracking has been common since the 1950s and has aided in drilling approximately 174,000 wells.

    Hydraulic fracturing, though gaining precedence and momentum for drilling natural gas, has raised many environmental concerns leading to further studies that acknowledge both the benefits and risks of the process. Among top concerns is the amount of water needed to fracture the wells, “In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that 70 to 140 billion gallons of water are used to fracture 35,000 wells in the U.S. each year.” In addition to misusing water supply, the list of chemicals and additives used for fracturing are not always released and are likely to contain human carcinogens, such as benzene. Furthermore, the effect on water consumption and air supply of the surrounding areas are still being studied. “Human exposure to fracking chemicals can occur by ingesting chemicals that have spilled and entered drinking water sources, through direct skin contact with chemicals or wastes, or by breathing in vapors from flowback wastes stored in pits and tanks.”

    The environmental concerns associated with fracking have caused citizens to raise awareness of the issue and, in rare cases, has banned fracking in certain areas. In order to maximize the potential of hydraulic fracturing, a high standard for environmental and citizen safety requires that guidelines be put in place, regulated and followed in a strict manner.

    In October 2013, the Petroleum Services Association of Canada (PSAC), alongside 11 of its leading oil and gas company members, created and released a hydraulic fracturing code of conduct. The PSAC created the guidelines with community engagement, as well as industry expertise, in order to ensure that the concerns of all stakeholders were being met.

    The PSAC document encompasses the following five key areas: water and the environment, fracturing fluid disclosure, technology development, health, safety, and training, and
    community engagement. The aim of the association was to ensure that the recovery of natural resources could be maximized while the environmental effects remained minimal.

    The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) is taking a proactive approach to fracking by revising and raising the standards of their guidelines that overlook: promoting water conservation, safeguarding water quality, monitoring and knowledge building, providing transparency, and ensure policies keep pace.

    Water consumption is kept in high priority and already has strict measurements in place. “In Alberta for example, regulation requires that natural gas development provide an extensive barrier (both vertically and laterally) between any shallow stimulation interval and existing water wells, in addition to isolating the aquifer and the fractured zone. Alberta has increased the focus on water well education and standards in oil and gas producing areas.”

    The province has strict restrictions in place that promote retrieving the abundance of our natural resource while maintaining the safety of the citizens through regulatory practice.

    Hydraulic fracturing can be used as a tool with great beneficial momentum to boost our economy, however, as studies are furthering our knowledge on this practice, guidelines must continue to be revised and implemented accordingly to ensure that damage to the environment and to the human population is eliminated.

    1. http://environment.alberta.ca/04131.html
    2. http://www.earthworksaction.org/issues/detail/hydraulic_fracturing_101#.U1W6tz-PJdg
    3. http://www.psac.ca/working-energy-commitment/
    4. http://www.capp.ca/canadaIndustry/naturalGas/ShaleGas/Pages/default.aspx

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