FRACKING: The FAQs

    1. What is “fracking”?
    2. Is there a difference between fracking for oil and fracking for natural gas?
    3. How does horizontal fracking differ from conventional fracking?
    4. What are “fracking fluids” and what are they made of?
    5. What are the specific chemicals used in horizontal hydraulic fracking, and are they toxic?
    6. How much fresh water is used during the fracking process? What happens to the used water?
    7. Why are so many people and governments concerned about horizontal fracking?
    8. What are some specific concerns NWT residents have about horizontal fracking?
    9. Is the Government of the NWT concerned about the impacts of horizontal fracking?
    10. What is the current status of horizontal fracking in the NWT & where are projects occurring or proposed?
    11. How is fracking regulated in the NWT?
    12. How have citizen action groups been involved in the fracking debate in the NWT?
    13. Is the NWT the only jurisdiction concerned about the impacts of horizontal fracking?
    14. What can I do to express my concerns?

1. What is “fracking”?

Horizontal hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) is a way to extract oil or gas trapped in underground layers of shale rock. The gas or oil will not flow on its own, as it does when pumped from conventional wells that tap into pooled oil or gas deposits. To release the oil or gas in shale rock, the rock has to be cracked, or fractured.

To access the deep, target layer of rock, a well hole is drilled first vertically, then sideways to extend horizontally into the oil or gas-containing shale layer. A mixture of water, sand, and chemicals (fracking fluid) is injected under extreme pressure. The force of the pressurized fluid opens fissures in the rock, creating larger fractures. The grains of sand in the fracking fluid prop the many cracks open so the trapped oil or gas can flow into the well hole and be pumped to the surface.

Oil companies have used vertical fracking for many years, but the technology of horizontal hydraulic fracturing on a commercial production scale is relatively new. Horizontal fracking has been used in shale formations for only the last decade or so. There has been relatively little time for gathering evidence on impacts, but disturbing new results are coming out weekly now. Horizontal fracking in the Sahtu Region of the NWT started in December 2013.

The fracking process is illustrated in more detail in the attached video links:

Horizontal Drilling Video

2. Is there a difference between fracking for oil and fracking for natural gas?

There are some differences between fracking for oil rather than natural gas, but the overall process is the same.  One of the main differences is the mixture of chemicals (“additives”) used in the fracking fluid.   

In NWT, the first fracking projects are targeting shale oil in the Sahtu (the Canol Shale Play), though production includes some natural gas.  However, there is natural gas-containing shale (the Cordova Embayment) in the Trout Lake/Liard area that may be future possibilities for fracking, and exploration continues elsewhere.

3. How does horizontal fracking differ from conventional fracking?

Conventional hydraulic fracturing (also called fracking), which has been done for many decades, is carried out in vertical rather than horizontal wells. Fracking technology is usually used toward the end of a conventional well’s life to extend production (to get the last bit of oil or gas out).

In shale formations, fracking becomes the primary means of getting the oil or gas to the surface.

The volume of oil returned from an unconventional fracked well is less than from most conventional deposits.  Even though multiple horizontal bores are usually drilled from a single well-hole, many more wells cover the landscape with shale fracking production.

4. What are ‘fracking fluids’ and what are they made of?

Fracking fluids are a mixture of water, a natural quartz, silica, or manufactured ceramic sand, and a complex mix of chemicals.  Only the fracking companies know the full list of chemical additives that they use in their projects.  Companies consider their recipes to be trade secrets.   However, we do know that many of the chemicals are toxic (poisons) and some are carcinogenic (cancer causing).

The fluid injected into the wells is mostly water, with only 0.5 – 2 % added chemicals.  However, because of the large volumes of fracking fluids used, this means a large volume of toxic chemicals injected in each well.  For example, it is estimated that approximately 7.5 – 19 million litres of fresh water, 100,000 kilograms of sand, 1400 kilograms of gelling agents and microbiocides, and 10,000 litres of toxic chemicals, including 5000 litres of hydrochloric acid, are being used to frack a single well in the Sahtu region of the NWT.   

5. What are the specific chemicals used in the horizontal hydraulic fracking process, and are they toxic?

The link below provides a comprehensive list of the types of chemicals that are used in fracking fluids in varying degrees, depending on the nature of the rock being fracked.  The chemicals that are found in fracking fluids are far from safe. When exposed to humans, some of the additives are associated with low birth weight, birth defects, respiratory problems, cancer, and fertility problems. Scientists have found that 25 percent of fracking chemicals could cause cancer; 37 percent could disrupt the endocrine system; 40 to 50 percent could affect the nervous, immune and cardiovascular systems; and more than 75 percent could impair sensory organs and the respiratory system.

What Chemicals are Used

Fracking Chemicals from a Public Health Perspective

Did You Know?
Oil & gas companies don’t need to reveal what the ingredients are to their frack fluids:
  Even though there are no ‘trade secrecy’ laws in Canada, companies use the idea of ‘proprietary rights’ to hide specific information about their fracking fluid mix from regulators and from the public.  We don’t know the full details of the chemical composition of a fracking fluid at a particular site.  This means that fire fighters, first aid responders, medical staff, spill clean-up crews, etc. don’t know exactly what chemicals they are dealing with in the event of a spill, a chemical fire, contamination of workers, etc.   Many jurisdictions have raised concerns about the public and environmental health risks associated with this level of secrecy, including the NWT Chapter of the Council of Canadians.

News Item: Fracking Companies’ Trade Secrets Should Not Trump Public Interest” – Council of Canadians, NWT Chapter

6. How much fresh water is used per fracked well, and what happens to that water?

As much as 10-25 million litres (2.2 to 5.5 million gallons) of fresh water is used to frack a single well.  To put this into perspective, 25 million litres is about enough to supply all the residents of Fort Good Hope with drinking water for a year and a half.

Water used in the fracking process and recovered is permanently contaminated, as it is mixed with chemicals to become fracking fluid.  It cannot safely be returned to the environment.  Nor can it be cleaned up in any economically feasible way. Instead, it is typically pumped into deep, underground rock formations where it becomes lost to the earth’s hydrological cycle.  It is no longer available to support life.

Anywhere from 40% to 60% of the fracking fluid mix, primarily contaminated water, remains underground because it cannot be pumped out during the fracking operation.  No one knows quite where it goes or where it will end up over time. However, there are some examples of aquifers being contaminated across the United States. Click here to read about drinking water contamination in California.

The other 40% to 60 % is pumped back to the surface. At this point, it is contaminated with oil and gas compounds in addition to the chemical additives.  Sometimes the “flowback”, as it is referred to, may be treated and recycled for use in other fracking operations; but most of it has to be disposed.  It is stored in tanks before being shipped by tanker truck (or possibly barge) to a location where it can be injected into an abandoned deep well (conventional oil/gas well).

In the NWT, the contaminated fracking fluid will be trucked (or possibly barged) to northern Alberta and/or B.C. for treatment and deep well injection during the exploration phase.  There has been some discussion of creating fracking fluid containment ponds in the Sahtu because of the high cost of trucking the fluid south.   

7. Why are so many people and governments concerned about horizontal fracking?

As a relatively new technology, unconventional/horizontal hydraulic fracking has not had time to undergo rigorous study to determine if the results of the process are truly worth the risks. Below is a table that concisely lists some of the legitimate concerns raised by residents and governments around the world. It is divided into categories to give you a sense of how many factions of communities and environment are impacted by this method of resource extraction.

Table 1:

Water

Land Use

Climate

Health

Socio-economic

The fracking process uses huge quantities of fresh water (up to 25 million litres per well). Fresh water is becoming more and more precious to us as we continue to lose or damage our fresh water resources.

Well pad construction and access roads lead to wildlife habitat loss and major disturbances to sensitive species.

Methane leaks are common at well heads: methane is 34 times worse than CO2 as a greenhouse gas.

Fracking includes the use of a multitude of chemicals that are toxic to humans and all living things; carcinogens, neurotoxins, endocrine disruptors, immune inhibitors, and respiratory system irritants.

Despite claims of job sector benefits, oil and gas sector has the lowest job creation per million dollars invested.

Removal of millions of litres of water from water tables and ecosystems results in reduced stream flows, depletion of aquifers, contamination of aquifers, impacts on aquatic life, and on wetlands.

Added infrastructure, such as roads, camps, quarries for sand, flaring sites, fuel and toxic wastewater storage facilities, pipelines and compressor stations also impact habitats and scar our landscape.

The fracking process uses tremendous amounts of fossil fuels: diesel fuels the drilling, pumping, and quarrying equipment, as well as truck transportation.

A scientific breakdown of types of chemicals in fracking fluids: 25% could cause cancer; 37% could disrupt the endocrine system; 40-50% could affect the nervous, immune & cardiovascular systems; and more than 75% could impair sensory organs and the respiratory system.

Jobs available to northerners from fracking operations are seasonal and require low skills. Therefore communities will not benefit from diverse training programs and adding skills to the job sector.

Each well turns millions of litres of freshwater into contaminated wastewater that cannot be cleaned in any economically feasible way.

A new industry such as fracking will hugely increase in truck traffic, noise, and damage to already stressed northern highways.

Both CO2 and methane are  released during flare-offs at well heads (used to relieve excess system pressure, burning built-up flammable gasses).

Contaminated drinking water is a valid concern. As potential accidents may lead to leakage at well sites, toxic chemicals have the potential to migrate into aquifers used for residential water systems.

In many jurisdictions, significant short-term, disposable income and environmental concerns from fracking have created negative social problems, such as social disparity and conflicts, increased substance abuse, and disruption of family life.

Underground disposal of wastewater (typical solution for contaminated water) permanently removes water from ecosystem

Spills of wastewater or fracking chemicals on land would also have terrible impacts on terrestrial life systems (including our own).

Greenhouse gasses are released during the usage of the final oil or gas product.

Air quality is a great concern around well pads. Toxins, gasses, and solvents have been detected in the air around well pad and wastewater storage sites. Contaminated dust may travel long distances from these sites as well.

The rapid development of large-scale industries like fracking can’t be accommodated by local community services. Small, autonomous communities lose their identity.

Potential for contamination of groundwater in aquifers through leakage from frequent failures of cement well casings.

Fracturing in geologically active areas (such as Mackenzie Valley) is risky. Studies have already linked fracking operations as being in direct correlation of increased seismic activity in some areas.

The necessary clearing of forest cover and disrupting  permafrost in the north to build well pads and infrastructure cause more greenhouse gas emissions *and* destroy our precious carbon sinks.

As traffic and heavy equipment increase in areas undergoing fracking, road safety becomes a concern.

As we have seen in Fort McMurray, accommodating large-scale industry inflates costs of living. As a result, locals can no longer afford rent, food and services.

Potential for spills of wastewater and fracking chemicals during transportation and storage.

Great expenditures of money, intelligence, and effort go into fracking technologies to extract expensive, diminishing reserves of oil and gas when money and effort could be spent on developing sustainable, alternative energies.

As with any operation that uses gasses or liquids under intense pressure, well blow-outs are a concern. Explosions of hydrocarbons are an immediate physical danger, while explosive releases of gases or contaminated fluids can be a persistent danger.

Scientists have determined that 80% of known fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground if we are to avoid more than 2 degrees of warming, a dangerous level of climate change – this includes all remote northern deposits, and unconventional deposits.

Shipping or storage of highly volatile/explosive products such as hydrocarbons and toxic substances is a real concern for communities.

Note: Health impacts are being documented and reported with increasing frequency. Eg. The Council of Canadian Academies paper, Environmental Impacts of Shale Gas Extraction in Canada

Some of these issues are discussed further in other FAQs below, as well as in these links: 

CBC Special Report on NE B.C. shale gas boom

Council of Canadians – Fracking & Climate Change

Physicians for Social Responsibility – on Health Risks

8. What are some specific concerns NWT residents have about horizontal fracking processes?

NWT residents share the same concerns as many other communities that will be directly impacted by the industry. A few examples are listed below.

Containment and Transportation of Fracking Fluids:
Many fracking fluids and produced water contain highly toxic chemicals. They must be shipped into or out of the NWT, and, in the case of the Sahtu, hauled along the winter road or barged along the Mackenzie River to get to the fracking or disposal sites. Spills are an obvious risk. In the first few months of operation, the Sahtu project had two tanker truck roll-overs. During shipping by either land or water, these toxic substances will go right through many NWT communities, where emergency plans, equipment and trained people are few or non-existent.

Once used, fracking fluids in the NWT must either be shipped south for deep well disposal or stored in permanent containment ponds if deemed necessary.  Spills and seepage into the environment are possible.  Additionally, many of the fracking fluid ingredients are volatile chemicals, like benzene.  The evaporation of these toxic chemicals pollutes the air around containment ponds.

Impacts on Community/Ecosystem Water Sources:
Large volumes of toxic fracking fluids are left underground forever, where, over time, there is risk of them leaching or leaking into fault lines or groundwater flow that takes them to the surface. Northern industry denies that this will happen, but hydrologists and studies of long abandoned wells indicate otherwise, and there is no long-term certainty that the fluids will remain underground and out of contact with the surface environment.

For more information:

California Aquifers Contaminated With Billions Of Gallons of Fracking Wastewater

Talisman frackwater pit leaked for months, kept from public

Fracking testimony at Yukon legislature

9. Is the Government of the NWT concerned about the impacts of horizontal fracking?

This remains to be seen.  For the NWT (more specifically, the Sahtu), the range of environmental and societal concerns associated with horizontal hydraulic fracturing were identified in a GNWT-funded report tabled in the legislature June 6th, 2013.  This report, entitled Resource Exploration in the Sahtu Settlement Area, identified the following concerns, among the others noted in FAQ sections above:

      • Groundwater contamination;
      • Wastewater management, including transportation and storage (ie. spills and other releases);
      • Well blowouts/explosions;
      • Water usage and supply (reduced stream flow, depletion of aquifers, interference with wetlands);
      • A short, intense work season followed by long down times may make it difficult for local contractors to sustain their operations; and
      • A rapid pace of development will put increased pressure on education, health and social services, justice, highways, and municipal programs and services – perhaps exceeding capacity.
      • Land consumption and disturbance (ie. loss of habitat);
      • Loss of traditional and cultural practices;
      • Air quality (ie. Methane, CO2, and other gas emissions from pipe stem leakage and air emissions from flare stacks – see Table 1);
      • Induced earthquakes; and
      • Lack of adequate baseline environmental data (to monitor and assess impacts).
      • Provides intense seasonal employment only during the winter months, with a large seasonal drain on the local work force, and;
      • Many jobs are highly specialized and are not accessible by northern workers (and given the intense seasonal nature of the work, appropriate skills training may be difficult).

The GNWT report recommends a thorough planning process before making full commitments to a fracking economy in the Sahtu.  However, no long-term planning has been carried out, the GNWT has not called for environmental assessments of existing projects in spite of public concerns, and the GNWT has delayed the release of its promised draft horizontal hydraulic fracking guidelines.  There is no current indication that the GNWT taking public concerns seriously.

In other jurisdictions, socio-economic problems have been significant due to poor planning and the intense nature of fracking operations.

MLA Concerns:

Hydraulic Fracturing Member Statement

Oral Questions- Public Input-Fracking

Petition- Refer Horizontal Fracking to Environmental Assessment

Other great links:

Social Costs of Fracking

Boom/Bust Economies

10. What is the current status of horizontal fracking in the NWT & where are projects occurring or proposed?

It is estimated that there is a large amount of shale oil in the Sahtu region, called the Canol Formation (or Canol Shale Play), which is between 1 to 2 kilometres deep.  Another formation in the Sahtu is referred to as the Hare Indian formation.

It is projected that this area could produce more than one billion barrels of crude oil over the next 15 to 30 years using horizontal drilling and multi-stage hydraulic fracturing techniques.  Conoco-Philips began fracking in the Canol formation in January 2014, without any environmental assessment.   

Reference: Alberta Oil Magazine, May 2013
http://www.albertaoilmagazine.com/2013/05/is-canol-shale-the-next-bakken/

In spring of 2014, Husky Oil applied for 4 frack wells on two all season well pads in the Sahtu, but shortly thereafter withdrew the application. They will be reassessing the project in 2 years. In the meantime, Husky Oil has staked 30 square km of land at White Beach Point on the North Arm of Great Slave Lake and is applying for a land license to drill 200 test holes to explore sand resources (propants) for the fracking process. Conoco Philips drilled and fracked 2 wells in 2014, and was granted permits to drill 10 additional frack wells but have postponed work for at least 2 years.  During Conoco Philips fracking projects, there were 3 chemical and sewage spills, two truck roll-overs (carrying mixtures of chemicals and water), considerable flaring of methane, and a holding pond released 2 700 cubic meters of water (a worker was also injured). The company has decided to wait until 2016 before carrying out an expansion of their site, but have done seismic and drilling test within their lease site.

It is quite probable that the Horn Basin shale gas play in northern B.C. extends into the southern-western portion of the NWT, around Trout Lake and Fort Liard.  Horizontal hydraulic fracking would be required as the primary means of accessing this gas.    

11. How is fracking regulated in the NWT?

With devolution on April 1, 2014, oil and gas regulatory authority passed from the federal government to the Government of the NWT.  The laws and regulations for oil and gas activity were simply copied from the old federal ones to the GNWT.  There was nothing specific to fracking, but new regulations for fracking are expected soon, set to be implemented April 1, 2015.

When an application for horizontal hydraulic fracking is received, there is the opportunity for public and organizational comments — and a few designated governments and environmental management boards may refer the application to an environmental assessment (EA). If an EA is not carried out, the project is referred to a regulatory process managed by NWT regulatory boards and the GNWT (for oil and gas authorizations).   

As of April 1, 2014, the Territorial Minister of Industry, Tourism, & Investment (as of 2015 – David Ramsay), who is responsible for “promoting … development of NWT petroleum resources”, is also responsible for the administration and regulation of the oil and gas industry, through the Office of the Regulator of Oil and Gas Operations (OROGO).  The Minister of Lands (as of 2015 – Robert C. McLeod) will coordinate environmental review input on behalf of the GNWT. The Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency (CanNor) will be the coordinator for the federal government input.

Fracking activities in the Sahtu were permitted by the federal government before devolution took place but the GNWT chose not to use its previous authority to call for an environmental assessment review.

The Process:
The GNWT opens bids for parcels of land for oil and gas development on Crown lands.  In their “bids” (there is no income for the government), companies commit to invest a certain amount of money for exploration over a specific period of time.  When approved, a company submits land use and water permit applications to the responsible Land and Water Board (in the Sahtu, this is, for now, the Sahtu Land and Water Board).  The application is handled according to laws and regulations under the Mackenzie Valley Resource Management Act.  There is then an application screening period during which time designated agencies (such as the Land and Water Board, the federal government, the territorial government, and the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board) can call for an Environmental Assessment  (EA) of the proposed project, based on its own concerns, recommendations from other agencies, and/or significant public concerns.  If an EA is not called for, the Land and Water Board sets licence/permit conditions for the project with respect to land and water usage.   The company also applies for an oil and gas exploration authorization through the National Energy Board (NEB) – or now, through OROGO –which can, presumably, set some of its own conditions.

12. How have citizen action groups been involved in the fracking debate in the NWT?

While industry, some levels of government, and Sahtu business people appear to support fracking without having environmental assessments of specific applications, many NWT residents are seriously concerned about the potential impacts of horizontal hydraulic fracking. Citizen action groups:

      • have challenged the GNWT to force industry to fully disclose the nature and extent of its chemical use, (click for link)
      • have protested against any fracking operation in the NWT, (click for link)
      • have created Facebook pages devoted to fracking concerns, [can we insert link?]
      • have called for a regional fracking vote, (click for link)
      • have challenged the integrity of their own community leaders, (click for link)
      • have coordinated a petition calling for environmental assessment of any future fracking application. (click for link)  and (link 2)
      • are currently gathering signatures on another petition calling for a moratorium on fracking in NWT pending a comprehensive review and public input to the balance of cost and benefit (link to petition)

Fracking is seen as being a controversial and potentially damaging form of industrial development, with far more risks and disadvantages than advantages.   This opposition to fracking in the NWT will likely increase unless citizens’ concerns about socio-economic and environmental impacts are directly addressed, a moratorium is established to give time to research the impacts of fracking, including cumulative impacts, or fracking is banned entirely.  The provinces of Quebec, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland Labrador and Yukon currently have moratorias on fracking while they conduct research into this technique and hold public consultations.

A number of First Nations in both Yukon and NWT have declared moratoria or called for regional review on fracking on their lands. The Gwich’in Tribal Council unanimously passed a resolution in August of 2014 declaring Gwich’in lands frack-free zones until further research is completed. You can read this document here*.

The Dene Nation passed a resolution in 2011 calling for a moratorium in NWT: (link to pdf document)

13. Is the NWT the only jurisdiction concerned about the outcomes of horizontal fracking?

Short answer? No!

In Canada and around the world, cities, counties, provinces, states, and entire countries have come to the conclusion that the financial gain horizontal fracking will bring to a small few is not worth the many risks to our health, environment, and communities. Check out the tables below for places that have either banned or placed a moratorium (pending further studies) on horizontal hydraulic fracturing.

Table 2: Canadian examples of banned/halted fracking

Place

Status of Fracking

Newfoundland & Labrador

Moratorium in place (Nov. 2013)

New Brunswick

Moratorium in place, based on conditions (Dec. 2014)

Nova Scotia

Banned (Sept. 2014)

Quebec

Banned (Dec. 2014)

Yukon

Moratorium (2012)

Table 3: Snapshot of fracking bans/moratoriums around the world

Place

Status of Fracking

Bulgaria

Banned (2012)

France

Banned (2011 & subsequently upheld in 2013)

Germany

Banned (upheld 2014)

Netherlands

Moratorium (temporary, enacted in 2013)

Romania

Moratorium expired 2013 – major protests ongoing

South Africa

Moratorium lifted 2012 – still controversial

Spain (Cantabria)

Banned (2013)

Tunisia

Moratorium tabled in 2014 – awaiting further news

United Kingdom

Ban lifted 2013

USA: States

  • New York

Banned (2014)

  • Vermont

Banned/outlawed (2012)

  • California

2 out of 3 counties banned fracking (2014)

  • Colorado

Banned (upheld 2014)

  • Denton, TEXAS

Banned by city of Denton (2014)

  • Dallas, TEXAS

Banned by city of Dallas (2013)

  • Pennsylvania

Moratorium (2013)

  • Colorado

Ban in the works (as of 2013)

  • Washington, D.C.

Banned fracking in George Washington National Forest (2014)

  • Mora County, New Mexico

Banned by county (2013)

  • Hawaii

Banned (Hawaii Island) (2013)

  • Raleigh, NC

Banned until further study (2012)

14. What can I do to express my concerns? 

Click on the Fracking ACTION button at the top of this site!

~ Our latest action: Sign the Petition! ~

The Fracking Action North coalition is currently seeking signatures from NWT residents to demand a moratorium of fracking in the NWT until a comprehensive study is done to assess the risks and benefits of this industry to the residents of the NWT.  You can find more information and the petition here.

Write your Member of Parliament!

Dennis Bevington – MP, Northwest Territories
P.O. Box 1986
Yellowknife, NT X1A 2P5
Phone: 867-873-6995
E-mail: dennis.bevington.c1@parl.gc.ca

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