Fort Nelson is a place most Canadians have not heard of and will never visit. Yet in early 2011, both New Brunswick’s Natural Resources Minister, Bruce Northrop, and Environment Minister, Margaret-Ann Blaney, plan to make a call to the remote city in the northeast corner of British Columbia.
With shale gas developments in New Brunswick in just their exploratory phase, a growing chorus of protests have underscored to the provincial government the deep well of public suspicion over industry claims that such “unconventional” gas resources can be exploited safely.
Central to public outcries in recent weeks in Norton, Sussex and Penobsquis have been questions about just how much of New Brunswick’s water will be needed to produce gas from shale, and what happens with the toxic wastewater typically produced as a byproduct in the production process, which sees water, sand and chemicals pressure-pumped deep underground to fracture the surrounding shale rock, thereby releasing its trapped gas.
It is no accident that Mr. Northrop and Ms. Blaney are heading far to the northwest to try and get a fix on what developing their province’s gas resources could mean. Fort Nelson is in the Horn River Basin, one of two major shale-gas producing regions in British Columbia, and one of North America’s largest.
The other reason to travel so far afield is that Apache Canada, Canadian subsidiary of Houston-based Apache Corporation, operates there and has plans to explore and possibly develop shale resources in New Brunswick as well.
Last year, Apache Corporation took the unusual step of disclosing to its shareholders how much water it had used in the pressure-pumping process described above and known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking. At its remote Two Island Lake well site (180 kilometres by rugged road from Fort Nelson), the company set a world record for fracking, pumping 980,000 cubic metres of water at 16 wells grouped on one giant, multi-well pad.
What the company did not disclose was where it obtained the 392 Olympic swimming pools worth of water to set its dubious record (likely now surpassed by its industry partner, Encana Corporation). The answer – slowly bubbling to the surface following requests to British Columbia’s energy industry regulator, the Oil and Gas Commission, by the Fort Nelson First Nation – is disconcerting, to say the least.
Eight months after setting the record, Apache dropped the bombshell that almost half the water – 431,000 cubic metres or 172 Olympic swimming pools – came from sources “not related to” Oil and Gas Commission approvals.
In the coming weeks, it is expected that the mystery sources will prove to be an expanding network of giant pits that gas companies have carved out of the remote muskeg and boreal forest, and that accumulate pools of water which would otherwise feed a finely balanced network of low-lying forests, shallow lakes, creeks and marshes – habitat for trumpeter swans, endangered boreal caribou and other bird and animal life. One company in the region – Nexen Inc. – has approval to dig one such pit that will measure 560 metres long, by 200 metres wide, and 13 metres deep. The company says the pit may then be left to “infill naturally” with water.
The ostensible reason for such pits is to provide fill for company roads, but increasingly it looks like the end game is water, without which there’s little or no shale gas.
In visiting Fort Nelson, Mr. Northrop and Ms. Blaney should keep such facts in mind. They may also want to reflect on the fact that the water that will inevitably come into play in New Brunswick will be an order of magnitude greater than that recently reported as used at test wells fracked by Corridor Resources Inc., a joint venture partner with Apache. Those test wells used 3,560 cubic metres of water – a drop in the proverbial bucket when viewed next to the 61,259 cubic metres per well at Two Island Lake.
When it comes to our vital water resources we are in deep trouble when we don’t know what we have, how slowly or quickly our water resources naturally recharge, where water is withdrawn and by whom. In Canada’s most intensely developed shale gas zone, answers to such fundamental questions remain unanswered. The public is largely in the dark about who has access to water and from where.
Here’s hoping after their swing through British Columbia that Mr. Northrop and Ms. Blaney place sustainable use of New Brunswick’s water resources at the top of their priority list and devise a system for thorough, timely reporting of all industrial water use.
Ben Parfitt is a Victoria B.C.-based researcher and writer and author of ‘Fracture Lines: Will Canada’s Water be Protected in the Rush to Develop Shale Gas?‘, a report for the Program on Water Issues at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.