Fracking, regulators and sour gas

14 09 2010

The site of the natural gas explosion in San Bruno, California, last Thursday.

When a natural gas pipeline ruptured in San Bruno last Thursday, killing four and injuring fifty people, the world woke up to the sobering reality that many in the Peace region have struggled for awhile now: natural gas can be just as ugly and just as costly as its sister industry, oil extraction.

As Charlotte and I work on logging and editing the footage for Horses for Orphans-Brazil project, I’ve been researching the possibilities of recording what’s happening in B.C.’s northeast, the Peace River region. There are so many energy questions and resource issues at stake that will, in one way or another, affect all Canadians, that it’s almost impossible to not consider doing a story on it.

Most obviously, there is the much-talked of “Site C” damming of the Peace river, the second such dam by BC Hydro on that river correction, sorry, the THIRD such dam – thanks Sharon! The W.A.C. Bennett dam was first, and then they built the Peace Canyon dam downstream. These two already supply 40% of British Columbia’s hydroelectric power.

Site C is raising so much opposition because the reservoir created will flood thousands of acres of prime agricultural land – almost 20 percent of the Class 1-3 farmland in the Peace River Valley, which contains some of the highest quality dirt in the province. There will be a protest by First Nations leaders and chiefs, local community members affected by the dam, and the Sierra Club on Sunday Sept. 19th, with a “Paddle to the Premier” in Victoria and a demonstration in front of the Parliament buildings. But that issue is being well-covered in the press, and I feel its public enough that most stakeholders will be able to have their say.

The other controversial energy issue that is lesser known outside the region is that around natural gas extraction, the darling of B.C. and Alberta governments, and of even environmentalists who consider it a relatively clean energy. But so little is known outside the industry about the methods of extraction that we are only starting to discover the true cost of the gas.

Montney-Deep basin shale gas play (middle area)

Because of new technology called hydraulic fracturing, gas companies are now able to drill horizontally, rather than just vertically, to access the gas trapped in shale rock. In the area I’m exploring it’s known as the Montney shale gas play. In a technique known as “fracking”, water in the tens of millions of gallons is poured into the drilled hole, then is highly pressurized until it fractures the bedrock in which the gas is trapped. After that, a cocktail of chemicals – which composition is a highly kept secret – is poured in to cause the gas to bubble to the surface.

Frackaction NY

So there are already three issues at stake here: 1. that huge amount of water used to extract the gas is lost forever from the watershed, never to return to rivers or ocean, and if it does, it will be heavily polluted by the mysterious chemical cocktail; 2. those chemicals have been known to poison nearby wells and groundwater in N.Y. state, which has caused such an uproar there is a one-year moratorium on fracking while the government assesses the dangers of the practice (http://dontfrackwithny.com/ http://nofracking.com/ http://www.frackaction.com/); and 3. horizontal drilling means that landowners who don’t even have a pad or well site on their land are unfairly affected by pipelines drilled into their land.

If a gas company has bought the lease to the land on which your house is standing, you have no choice but to deal with them because if you don’t, they might go to your neighbour, give HIM compensation and drill the pipeline right into your property anyway.

And I won’t even get into the safety issues of having a a 6-hole gas pad (about half the size of a football field) installed just 800 m from your house… how a region’s groundwater can become contaminated by methane… or how little sour gas it takes to kill you. That’s a whole other story. The meat of it for me is the landowners who moved to the Peace region to buy a bit of land to retire on in, well, in peace and quiet, who find themselves in the untenable position where they can’t protest or object to either their government or the (mainly) Alberta gas corporations about the development, because the right to do so has been sold from under their feet.

As Charlotte and I talked the other day about it, she asked the crucial question that lays bare how this crazy situation can even exist: “Who is regulating this? What is the government doing about it?”

The answer, of course, is, “It’s complicated.” It’s complicated because while Canada has a National Energy Board, and there is a Mediation and Arbitration Board to aid landowner-gas company negotiations, it would appear those bodies are so wedded to the lucrative private companies that little, if any, objectivity about the value of farmland vs. value of trapped gas, is possible.

I’ll get off my soapbox now and just leave you with two words: “regulatory capture.” A broad definition of the term and its impact can be found here:

http://www.landownerassociation.ca/regulatorycapture.html

OK, back to logging footage of beautiful horses and precious Brazilian children. 🙂

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