Hydraulic fracturing and water use in British Columbia

Contributed to Water Canada Magazine
Geoff Morrison
Manager British Columbia
Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers
June 09, 2015
Northeastern British Columbia’s population and economy are projected to grow over the next decades, with the natural gas industry as an important driver of economic growth.

Water use by all sectors – municipal, commercial and industrial – is expected to increase as a result, making the management and responsible use of this important resource all the more important.

The Northeast Water Strategy, a framework for water use and management released by the B.C. government, is an important step in this direction, because it seeks to ensure the continued sustainable use of this important resource by all sectors in the region.

It is also incumbent on our industry, one of the major water users in northeastern B.C., to continue using water responsibly and to be transparent about how we use water in hydraulic fracturing operations.

Natural gas wells drilled in northeastern B.C. are typically fractured in several stages. Depending on the geology and reservoir characteristics, this can require 5,000 to 100,000 cubic metres of water per well. A well is typically only fractured once and will produce for up to 30 years.

While 100,000 cubic metres of water is a large volume, it’s important to put our industry’s total water use into perspective. B.C. government data shows water use by all industries and communities is small compared to the total amount of surface water in the region and represents 0.05 per cent of mean annual flow of all rivers in the region.

B.C.’s oil and natural gas sector was approved for about 20 million cubic metres of surface water per year through water licence allocations in 2014. Actual use was much less. An additional 11.3 million cubic metres was approved for short-term water use, of which less than half, or 5.3 million cubic metres, was actually used for hydraulic fracturing.

Our industry believes in water protection and using water responsibly is a priority.

Examples of how we do this include recycling flowback water from hydraulic fracturing operations, use of saline groundwater or low quality non-saline water not fit for human consumption, and use of recycled municipal wastewater. About 30 per cent of the water used for hydraulic fracturing in B.C. comes from non-freshwater sources, including flowback reuse, recycled municipal waste water and saline groundwater. Waste water that cannot be reused is stored in deep disposal wells that are subject to strict government regulations and have been safely used in Canada for many decades.  

Our commitment to responsible water use is detailed in the industry’s hydraulic fracturing operating practices. For example, one practice outlines the steps, which are also a regulated requirement, natural gas producers take to ensure drinking water sources are protected through sound wellbore construction: several layers of steel and cement must be in place to prevent anything travelling through the wellbore from coming into contact with drinking water aquifers.

Below ground, natural barriers also help prevent fracturing fluids from coming into contact with geological zones containing drinking water. 

Drinking water aquifers tend to be within 300 metres of the surface, while shale formations containing natural gas typically sit two to three kilometres below ground. Fissures created by hydraulic fracturing extend 50 to 100 metres from the horizontal leg of the wellbore where hydraulic fracturing takes place. In other words, the fissures are separated from formations containing freshwater aquifers by thousands of metres of impermeable rock, the weight of which is so great it limits the vertical length of the fractures.

Robust regulations and the application of best operating practices have led to an exemplary safety record: over the past 60 years, more than 215,000 wells have been hydraulically fractured in B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan without a demonstrated impact on drinking water, according to regulators.

Nonetheless, our industry can and should seek to improve from a sound baseline of experience. Where areas for improvement are identified, we expect industry to listen to local concerns and to change operating practices according to scientific evidence. In these cases, we also expect regulators to strengthen regulations. This has always been the case.

British Columbia’s and Canada’s economic strength and prosperity, and maintaining our valued public services, rest on our ability to develop and market our natural resources. We should be proud of our natural gas and oil potential, and we should be proud of the safe and responsible manner in which these resources are developed.