CBC's Shattered Ground ignores the facts

Contributed to The Hill Times
Greg Stringham
Vice President of Oil Sands
Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers
February 12, 2013

Re: CBC, The Nature of Things: Shattered Ground, February 7, 2013

"Fracking is one of the 'hot button issues' of our time," Shattered Ground director Leif Kaldor is quoted on the CBC's The Nature of Things website. "There are very strong opinions on both sides of the issue, and very little middle ground."

We agree. Unfortunately, Kaldor's documentary failed to reach the middle ground, that is to say the balance one would expect of a documentary. But sometimes that's just The Nature of Things.

So let's inject the facts that Shattered Ground ignored, starting with the claim that hydraulic fracturing is a new technology.

It isn't. In Canada, hydraulic fracturing has been used for more than six decades. During that time, more than 175,000 wells were hydraulically fractured in British Columbia and Alberta without a single documented case of impact on drinking water, according to regulators in both provinces. An interview with Alberta's Energy Resources Conservation Board or the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission (OGC), the Alberta and B.C. regulators, would have established this fact. But Kaldor either did not interview regulators or he chose not to include their perspective in his film. Perhaps it didn't fit into his narrative.

That's too bad, because it may leave viewers with the impression that Canada's natural gas industry is poorly regulated. That's certainly not the case.

Every aspect of natural gas development is strictly regulated. This includes the amount of water industry is allowed to use, waste-water disposal, venting and flaring, and setback distances of natural gas operations from communities and public facilities. Shattered Ground makes no reference to these regulations which should have interested a filmmaker who saw a "need for a film that would give people a clear understanding of the process," as Kaldor says on The Nature of Things website.

He certainly had the option to include these points had he interviewed CAPP, which he declined, or regulators, which he appears to not have done.

Let's deal with water first.

Shale gas resources currently developed in B.C. using horizontal wells with multi-stage fracturing use 5,000 to 100,000 cubic metres of water per well, depending on geology. A well is typically fractured once and will produce 20 to 30 years. While that's a lot of water, it's important to view this in perspective. According to the OGC, oil and natural gas development accounts for approximately 0.5 to one per cent of surface water use in British Columbia.


Debolt Water Treatment Plant

That's not to say industry should not improve its environmental performance as it relates to water use and management. Technology and innovation will further reduce industry's freshwater use. The Debolt Water Treatment Plant, a joint venture by Apache Canada and Encana, is one example. The plant draws water from a deep saline aquifer and prepares it for use in hydraulic fracturing operations.

Disposal wells, used to store waste-water from oil and natural gas operations in deep underground reservoirs, have been common practice since the first days of oil and gas development. Disposal wells have been safely used in Canada for decades and the process is subject to strict government regulations to prevent the movement of fluids to drinking-water groundwater sources.

Many of these issues are addressed by CAPP's operating practices for hydraulic fracturing, introduced in early 2012. These practices complement regulations and we expect them to inform future regulatory adjustments. For example, the practices state that we support disclosure of fracturing fluid additives and development of fracturing fluid additives with the least environmental risks. Disclosure via an online registry is mandatory in B.C. and Alberta. CAPP's operating practices also identify sound wellbore design and construction as fundamental to protecting groundwater sources.

Kaldor was aware of this information - CAPP sent it to him - but he chose to ignore it. Perhaps it didn't fit into his narrative.

Let's deal with venting, flaring and emissions.

Venting and flaring are also strictly regulated in Canada. In Alberta, environmental regulations cut the amount of natural gas flared by 80 per cent from 1996 to 2010, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by more than eight million tonnes. In B.C., regulations will eliminate routine flaring by 2016. Even today, total gas flaring accounts for less than two per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in B.C., according to the OGC. As well, B.C. has established an air-monitoring program in the northeastern part of the province where natural gas development takes place.

Here's another interesting fact about the impact of natural gas on greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. Energy Information Administration stated last year that carbon dioxide emissions from energy use were the lowest in 20 years, partially as the result of increased use of natural gas in power generation. Shattered Ground makes only a passing reference to the fact that natural gas is the cleanest-burning fossil fuel and has an important role to play as an energy solution focused on a lower-carbon future. Perhaps it didn't fit into his narrative.

Health impacts were a major focus of Shattered Ground. Supporting the health and safety of the public, industry employees and the environment is of paramount importance to industry, and we are not aware of any adverse health impacts as a result of natural gas development from shale in Canada. B.C.'s government has commissioned a health-risk assessment of oil and natural gas development in the province. A report is expected in 2014. We support steps that increase the understanding of our industry.

Lastly, let's talk about the link between hydraulic fracturing and seismic activity. The OGC investigated this link in the Horn River Basin of B.C. and published its findings in August 2012. The report concluded hydraulic fracturing was the cause of 272 cases of what the OGC called "anomalous seismicity." But none of these seismic events, the report makes clear, caused any injury, property damage or posed any risk to public safety or the environment. In fact, only one of these seismic events was felt on the surface. Had Kaldor chosen to interview the OGC, he would have discovered these facts. Instead, he relied on commentary from a non-expert on this issue. Perhaps it fit into his narrative.

Are we surprised by this one-sided portrayal of the natural gas industry? Not really.

The Tipping Point, a film about Canada's oil sands that aired on The Nature of Things two years ago, used the same slanted approach and one-sided narrative to suit a pre-conceived story line.

Students of journalism are typically taught to write the story first - as complete as possible - and write the headline later. Kaldor seems to have done it the other way around.

Sometimes that's just The Nature of Things.