Shale gas is a natural gas that until recently was relatively unexploited, because it exists as molecules of methane trapped in microscopic pores in impermeable shale bedrock. Unconventional drilling practices were developed to crack open the rock and release the trapped gas, hence the term unconventional natural gas (CAPP, 2012).
Enter hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’.
Fracking involves pumping a mixture of water, chemicals and sand at high pressure into boreholes in order to fracture shale bedrock so the methane it contains can be collected and removed (EPA, 2012). Many of the chemicals in fracking fluid are known carcinogens (8020 Vision, 2012), and wastewater from fracking is known to contain even radioactive substances such as radium (Environmental Leader, 2011).
By 2002, fracking was used about one million times in the US since it was first employed in 1947 in an oil well in Kansas; in 2009, the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC) reported that there were zero cases where fracking caused contamination in groundwater aquifers; and although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) waited until November, 2011 to release their Plan to Study the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing on Drinking Water Resources (final report slated for release for public and peer review in 2014), in 2004 they concluded that little or no threat is posed to underground drinking water sources by the injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids (All Consulting, 2012).
Tell that to the people who can no longer drink their tap water in these videos:
From ‘Gasland’ (2010) written and directed by Josh Fox.
In 1974 the US Safe Drinking Water Act (SWDA) implemented the Underground Injection Control (UIC) program to regulate injection wells. The Bush administration passed the Energy Policy Act of 2005, amending the SWDA to exclude hydraulic fracturing fluids (except those containing diesel) from regulation under the UIC, but states could choose to regulate fracking fluids for themselves (EPA, 2012).
Clearly, this shows disregard for the safety of public drinking water and gives private stakeholders free reign for use of fracking fluids. It is difficult to find any environmental impact assessments on shale gas development projects, or any documents mentioning cumulative impact assessments of the practice of fracking and life-cycle carbon emissions of unconventional natural gas. This is disturbing considering that in one Pennsylvania County alone, approved gas-well permits experienced a 27-fold increase from 2007-2009 (Osborne et al., 2011).
In the UK, drilling shale gas wells was suspended following small seismic tremors in April and May 2011. In July 2012, the British government had yet to announce a decision on resuming fracking (House of Commons Library, 2012), though it had stated that it had “no plans to introduce a moratorium on shale gas activities in the UK” (page 10).
New Brunswick’s provincial government recently proposed new changes to the framework that oversees the oil and gas industry, particularly the process of hydraulic fracturing. New regulations would see more money flow back to property owners and communities where mining takes place, provide stricter rules regarding environmental protection and impose heavier fines for developers who break those rules (CBC, 2012). However, a report released on October 15, 2012 on the shale gas industry in the province ruled out the prospect of a moratorium, sighting that a full moratorium “would not benefit New Brunswick or its people” (CBC, 2012).
Thankfully in Quebec, due to major public backlash against fracking in the St. Lawrence Lowlands, the provincial government introduced a moratorium on shale gas development in March, 2011 until a full environmental study is done evaluating the controversial drilling technique (The Globe and Mail, 2011). The provincial ban will last at least until Natural Resources Canada has finished their broad environmental review of shale gas exploitation in Quebec, expected to be complete by 2014 (The Globe and Mail, 2012).
“Conventional & Unconventional.” Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (2012). (Web). Retrieved October 15, 2012, from: http://www.capp.ca/canadaIndustry/naturalGas/Conventional-Unconventional/Pages/default.aspx
“Hydraulic Fracturing Background Information.” EPA (2012). (Web). Retrieved October 15, 2012, from: http://water.epa.gov/type/groundwater/uic/class2/hydraulicfracturing/wells_hydrowhat.cfm
“Toxic Chemicals used in Fracking.” 8020 Vision (2011). (Web). Retrieved October 15, 2012, from: http://8020vision.com/2011/04/17/congress-releases-report-on-toxic-chemicals-used-in-fracking/
“Report: Fracking’s ‘Radioactive Wastewater’ Discharged into Drinking Water Supplies.” Environmental Leader (2011). (Web). Retrieved October 15, 2012, from: http://www.environmentalleader.com/2011/03/01/report-frackings-radioactive-wastewater-discharged-into-drinking-water-supplies/
All Consulting, LLC (2012). The Modern Practices of Hydraulic Fracturing: A Focus on Canadian Resources. (Web). Retrieved on October 15, 2012, from: http://www.capp.ca/getdoc.aspx?DocId=210903&DT=NTV
Clip from ‘Gasland’ (2010) written and directed by Josh Fox
“History of the UIC Program – Injection Well Timeline.” EPA (2012). (Web). Retrieved on October 15, 2012, from http://water.epa.gov/type/groundwater/uic/history.cfm
Osborne, Stephen G., et al., (2011). Methane contamination of drinking water accompanying gas-well drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(20), 8172-8176. doi:10.1073/pnas.1100682108
Dr. Patsy Richards, (2012). Shale gas and fracking. House of Commons Library. SN/SC/6073
“Shale Gas Industry Hit with Higher Fines, Royalties.” CBC, 2012. (Web). Retrieved on October 15, 2012, from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick/story/2012/05/17/nb-shale-gas-regulations.html
“Shale Gas Report Rules Out Moratorium.” CBC, 2012. (Web). Retrieved on October 15, 2012, from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick/story/2012/10/12/nb-shale-gas-reports-health-environment.html
“Quebec Halts Shale Gas Exploration.” The Globe and Mail, 2011. (Web). Retrieved on October 15, 2012, from: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/industry-news/energy-and-resources/quebec-halts-shale-gas-exploration/article569874/
“Natural gas glut, not PQ, threatens Quebec’s shale sector.” The Globe and Mail, 2012. (Web). Retrieved on December 21, 2012, from: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/industry-news/energy-and-resources/natural-gas-glut-not-pq-threatens-quebecs-shale-sector/article4633191/