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Fracking on the rise in Manitoba

Not as dirty as American kin, but oil well regulation lacking

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MANITOBANS could soon know a little more about some of the environmentally-worrisome effects of fracking in the province’s booming oilpatch.

The province is working on a series of new regulations that would require oil companies to report the type and amount of fracking chemicals used in each oil well. That information would become part of a plain-language, searchable online database available to all Manitobans.

Digging Into fracking

FRACKING has been going on in the province for years, though most Manitobans consider it an American phenomenon, one whose environmental worries don’t apply here.

Those worries include the amount of freshwater used for fracking and the fate of the briny water unleashed when oil is extracted.

The province says each frack job uses between 400 and 700 cubic metres of freshwater, about what a family of four uses in a year.

But there are between 18 and 28 fracks conducted on the average horizontal well, depending on its length.

In total, Manitoba’s oil industry used an estimated 600-million litres of freshwater last year. That’s about half the water used by the town of Virden last year, according to the province.

The trouble is much of that water is not recycled or added back into the province’s freshwater stores. Instead, the waste water is injected deep underground, far below the aquifer, in old, unused wells.

— source: Innovation, Energy and Mines

The province is also reviewing how other jurisdictions ensure drinking water isn’t contaminated by nearby oil wells, how to better track how much fresh groundwater and surface water is used in fracking and where that water comes from.

"We think we have very good rules," said John Fox, assistant deputy minister of the mineral resources division of Manitoba Innovation, Energy and Mines. "There are certainly public issues, and we want to make sure we have the information that we can assure the public so their concerns are addressed."

Though it’s a huge environmental issue south of the border, fracking has been under the radar for most Manitobans, even green-minded ones.

Fracking, a relatively new technology, involves pumping a mixture of water, chemicals and sand down a well at high pressure to fracture the surrounding rock, loosening oil or gas deposits that are then sucked up to the surface.

Manitoba’s small, conventional oil industry dates back decades, but the first horizontal well, the kind most commonly associated with fracking, was only drilled a little more than 20 years ago.

Multi-stage fracking, where the fluid is blasted 20 or 30 times into a horizontal well, section by section, has been on the go for about five years. In that time, the province has seen a huge spike in oil production in Manitoba’s corner of the large Bakken oil field; the one that brought the oil boom to North Dakota.

Much of the concern about fracking in the United States — contaminated aquifers, the disposal of toxic waste water, even earthquakes — has been the result of shale gas fracking, which involves a much more extensive process than used for oil.

There is no natural gas production yet in the province, though Manitoba has significant shale gas deposits in southwestern Manitoba. Geological surveys on those deposits are now underway. Low natural gas prices make it economically unattractive to begin natural gas production for now.

Still, Manitoba’s fracking is significant and growing. There are well over 3,600 active oil wells in the province and most of them use fracking.

Environmental activists say fracking poses a risk to groundwater, threatens to deplete local freshwater sources and causes toxic byproducts, including the briny water pumped up with the oil. And, though industry is beginning to voluntarily disclose the chemicals that make up the fracking fluid, it’s traditionally been difficult to tally those additives, which are designed to reduce friction, stabilize clay and control the Ph levels in the fracking process.

Fox said Manitoba is looking at creating a Manitoba version of the FracFocus website now in use in the United States and British Columbia. It helps convert highly-technical fracking information into a more searchable, user-friendly, plain language that allows the public to access a list of fracking chemicals, well-by-well.

A final decision about FracFocus could be made by year-end, with implementation next year.

The way fracking is regulated and reported now in Manitoba, environmental consultant Gaile Whelan Enns said it’s difficult to gather a true picture of the environmental effects, including what exactly is added to fracking fluid, where the freshwater comes from and what happens to the waste.

She also said, while new regulations are worthwhile, they require stiff penalties and enough staff to properly inspect and enforce the rules. The province has traditionally stumbled when it comes to enforcement, she said, which is particularly worrisome in a province as reliant on clean water as Manitoba.

"We are a province of water and therefore we are a province of water challenges and risks," said Whelan Enns, director of Manitoba Wildlands.

Fox said the province is looking at whether to implement water-well testing near proposed oil wells, to have a water-quality baseline against which any contamination can be measured. Regulators are also studying whether to better collect data on the source and amount of freshwater used in the fracking process.

Fox said there has never been an incident in Manitoba where fracking fluid has contaminated ground water aquifers.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

 

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