Fracking: not new, not risky

Contributed to The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix
Sheri Somerville
Natural Gas Advisor
Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers
October 21, 2013

This June, the Oxford English Dictionary added more than 80 new words to its pages, including the noun fracking.

The dictionary defines fracking as "another term for hydraulic fracturing."

In an article accompanying the update, the dictionary's chief editor explains "a new word needs to be current for 10 years before consideration for inclusion."

This takes us back to 2003, which roughly coincides with the advent of what some have called the "shale gas revolution," namely the radical transformation of North America's natural gas markets through industry's ability to unlock previously inaccessible natural gas resources.

Since then, hydraulic fracturing has become part of commonly used language. It is no longer an obscure technical term engineers use to describe a process first used in North America in the late 1940s.

But questions about hydraulic fracturing remain, and a dictionary definition is inadequate for people looking for detailed information.

What is hydraulic fracturing?

It is a part of the process necessary to recover natural gas and oil from unconventional reservoirs such as shale or tight sand. The technology was developed in the 1940s and has since helped produce natural gas throughout North America. The use of horizontal drilling and multistage hydraulic fracturing have opened up shale and tight natural gas resources that were previously unrecoverable, including the Frederick Brook Shale in New Brunswick.

How is it done?

First, a wellbore (a hole drilled for the exploration or extraction of natural resources) is drilled vertically into the ground. Once it approaches the depth of the shale formation, which in New Brunswick is typically two to three kilometres deep, the drill turns to drill horizontally into the shale rock. Steel tubes called casing are inserted into the wellbore and secured by cement to protect underground drinking water sources. It is required that several layers of steel and cement are in place to prevent anything travelling through the wellbore from coming into contact with drinking water aquifers.

Once the casings are in place, the casing in the horizontal leg of the wellbore is perforated. Pressurized fracturing fluid is injected into the wellbore and through the perforations to crack the shale rock and release the natural gas. These cracks extend 50 to 100 metres from the horizontal wellbore and are separated from drinking water aquifers by thousands of metres of impermeable rock.

Sand in the fluid props open the tiny cracks, allowing natural gas to flow into the well. Between 25 to 40 per cent of the fluid is normally recovered in the initial stages of production. It is recycled in a closed system for future use or disposed according to regulations.

Shale gas resources currently developed in New Brunswick using multistage hydraulic fracturing require about 20,000 cubic metres of water per well, depending on geology. A well is typically only fractured once and can produce natural gas for 20 to 30 years. Most operators use water from rivers, their own freshwater storage pits or saline groundwater. They also use recycled water.

What additives are used?

Fracturing fluid consists of about 98.5 per cent water and sand. The remainder is chemical additives serving a number of purposes such as reducing friction and preventing bacterial growth from existing bacteria in the water. The additives also vary depending on the geology and other water characteristics. Disclosure of fracturing fluid additives is mandatory in B.C. and Alberta and can be found online at The New Brunswick government is also requiring mandatory disclosure.

Will it contaminate drinking water?

More than 175,000 wells have been hydraulically fractured in British Columbia and Alberta over the past 60 years without a case of harm to drinking water, according to the BC Oil and Gas Commission and the Alberta Energy Regulator. In New Brunswick, there have been no reports of drinking water contamination related to the 49 hydraulic fracturing operations that have taken place since 1985.

This strong safety record is the result of strict regulations and industry best operating practices. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers' operating practices for hydraulic fracturing identify sound wellbore construction as fundamental to protecting groundwater sources. The practices also support disclosure of fracturing fluid additives and development of fracturing fluid additives with the least environmental risks, and they commit member operators to measuring and disclosing water use with the goal of continuing to reduce industry's effect on the environment.

In New Brunswick, 29 natural gas wells are producing in the Sussex area. If the natural gas resource is discovered to be commercially viable in a larger area of the province, and provided industry is able to attract the investment capital necessary to grow, activity levels will increase.

This presents a significant opportunity for New Brunswick, because natural gas development can contribute to economic growth and job creation in our province, which has an unemployment rate of about 11 per cent.

Natural gas also offers an affordable, secure and reliable source of supply that can help replace declining supplies from offshore natural gas fields as use of natural gas expands beyond the current 11,000 residential, commercial and industrial customers in New Brunswick. In fact, some of New Brunswick's major industries have recently spoken out about the need for additional natural gas supplies to be developed in the province to enable economic growth and prosperity.

It is our goal to develop this important New Brunswick resource safely, reliably and in an environmentally responsible manner.