Inflaming a Conflict, Alberta Landowners Claim Coalbed Methane Fracing Contaminates their Water. Or are They Just Revising Old Rivalry Between Farmers and Industry? by Cyril Doll, July 3, 2006, Western Standard
Sure Alberta is awash with oil and gas, but pulling the valuable resources out of the ground doesn’t make every Albertan grin from ear to ear. In fact, you’d have to be pretty cheesed–as 120 landowners apparently were–to give up watching the province’s own Edmonton Oilers battle out game two of the Standley Cup finals to attend a government-sponsored symposium on the safety of coal-bed methane. At a spartan community hall in Trochu, Alta., farmers let their emotions do the talking as they heatedly challenged officials from the government and the energy industry, who were trying calmly to reassure the audience that there was virtually no danger to their well water as a result of nearby coal-bed methane drilling. But locals weren’t buying it. “Just because you have distinctions at the end of your name doesn’t mean nothing,” shouted one farmer at the panel–which included members of the Farmers’ Advocate, Alberta Energy and Utilities Board, the Canadian Society for Unconventional Gas, and Alberta Environment–before storming out to audience cheers.
Landowners insist that they’re the sacrificial lamb on Alberta’s holy altar to the oil and gas-and the billions in revenues it brings the province. As energy firms tap methane deposits attached to coal seams thousands of metres below the surface, using shockwaves (known as fracing, pronounced “fracking”), rural dwellers say that, at the same time, the methane is vibrating its way into their groundwater. Ever since the coal-bed methane industry took off in 2003, at least three Albertans have reported being able to light their well water on fire, due to high gas concentrations. …”I started to notice my water change,” says Jessica Ernst, an environmental consultant from Rosebud, Alta. “First I was getting a lot of pulverized coal, powders and bits in my water after area fracing. Not only would I light my water on fire, but it would explode.” … Nearly 113 miles away, around the Albertan town of Wetastikiwin, residents are making similar claims. In both places, they say their water was clean before the gas companies came along.
That’s too bad for the 20 or so Albertans lodging these complaints, say industry offiicals, but there are hundreds of methane wells currently active in the province, and the overwhelming majority have caused no problems for nearby residents. “Here are the facts: we’ve drilled over 6,000 coal-bed methane wells in Alberta and there have been two or three cases reported of water-well contamination, ” notes Mike Dawson, president of the industry group, the Canadian Society for Unconventional Gas. … Actually, CBM is often called the oilsands of gas, since unlike conventional natural gas, which is easily extracted from porous rock formations, CBM is abundant, but difficult to sequester. … But while the industry may be booming, the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board, which regulates energy production, insists the growth is being carefully controlled for safety. Among other things, the EUB mandates that any well casings that cross aquifers must be insulated with cement, that toxic drilling fluids are not allowed [above] the base of groundwater protection, and any saline water extracted from the drilling process–which has the potential to sterilize the earth–must be burried in deep underground reservoirs….
Source: Alberta Environment, 2006
EnCana’s Multiple Shallow Fracs into Fresh Water Aquifers at Rosebud, Alberta, March 2004
Source: EnCana Corporation Site Investigation Report by Hydrogeological Consultants Ltd., January 2005
“The EUB will not approve an application [for CBM drilling] unless we’re 100 per cent sure that groundwater will be protected,” says Leo Touchette, team leader for the EUB’s public safety/field surveillance branch in Red Deer, Alta.
… Scott Ranson, manager of public affairs for EnCana says it’s in his company’s interest to know what effects CBM driling has on the surrounding area, though he doesn’t say so, the fact that a billion-dollar oil firm like EnCana probably looks like a juicy target to those who think a little bad publicity, or even a lawsuit, can win them an easy million-dollar settlement. (One of EnCana’s predecessor firms, Alberta Energy Co., was also frequently the target of oilpatch vandalism by disgruntled landowners.) “It’s smart for us because we want to be able to tell if our operations have caused [harm] and we also need to be able to tell if they haven’t,” says Ranson. … Alberta’s environment ministry maintains that methane is non-toxic and isn’t poisonous when it’s dissolved in water. It’s non-explosive, and it can’t burn your skin. … “Groundwater containing gases is very common,” notes Walter Ceroici, head of the science and innovation section of Alberta Environment’s environmental policy branch. “These gases can contain methane, carbon dioxide, oxygen and nitrogen.” Ceroici says he encountered flammable tap water before CBM fracing was common in Alberta. … It’s a very touchy issue says Tom Nahirniak, executive secretary with the Alberta Surface Rights Federation. But in the end, he says, “the industry pretty much gets what they want.” Over 600,000 Albertans count on groundwater as their primary source of water.
… The challenge for industry is convincing landowners that oil and agriculture can co-exist peacefully, says Glynn Davis, manager of community engagement for Trident Exploration Corp., a Calgary-based CBM production company. “We may have to agree to disagree at times,” Davis says, but adds the key to getting along is when both sides are convinced that government is a fair dealer when it comes to balancing the interest of citizens and business. “What every Albertan should want is a reliable commitment that government is looking after the public good.” … The meeting in Trochu was the first of 13 the provincial government has planned for across the province to put landowner concerns about CBM to rest. Judging by the hostile response at the initital forum, they don’t stand much of a chance. And the argument that a handful of complaints amongst thousands of CBM sites hasn’t eased the mind of Ernst, who says she’s been trucking in water from Drumheller, Alta., since she refuses to drink her well water. She believes that there are more contaminated wells in the province, but landowners aren’t speaking up. “I think some [of] it is a matter of people not knowing,” she says, though she also claims that the oil industry is “buying people out” and making them sign confidentiality agreements to cover up the problem.
And yet, there’s no evidence that Ernst’s claim against EnCana’s CBM drilling has any basis. She’s refused to allow EnCana to test her well, so earlier this year, EnCana hired an Australian environmental firm, Worley Parson Komex, to test Ernst’s neighbour’s well, and the results says Ranson, exonerate his firm. The tests found that gas concentrations in the well were nearly the same as results “Obtained in 1983, 2003, and 2004,” according to Worley Parson Komex’s final report, released in March. But the tests did bring up other problems with the water that weren’t related to methane: “The Lauridsen Well and water distribution system should be treated for biofouling.” it said, referring to a common accumulation of bacteria in the water. [Emphasis added]