New methods open doors 
to opportunity, controversy 


Hydraulic fracturing | The new technology requires more water and creates more noise, dust and concerns about environmental damage

RED DEER — Unconventional gas wells are becoming the new normal for the North American energy industry.


“Given the proper tools and technology, we can unlock resources that we previously believed we could not unlock,” said Don Allen of the Canadian Society of Unconventional Resources (CSUR). 


Conventional oil and gas reservoirs usually flow easily to vertical well bores. In unconventional reservoirs, natural gas is trapped in the pores of finely textured sedimentary rocks such as shale. 


New technology developed in the last five years has changed the way energy companies can retrieve these resources. The ability to drill down deep and then turn horizontally below the surface was a major technological breakthrough. 


“This industry is evolving by leaps and bounds. Almost every month there is a new patent being issued,” Allen told the Alberta Synergy meeting in Red Deer Oct. 30. 


The organization represents landowner groups, energy companies and government, which gather to collaborate on energy development and conflict resolution. 


Fifty percent of gas in the United States and 30 percent in Canada comes from unconventional sources. 


Alberta has drilled 5,000 horizontal wells since 2008. 


The technology requires multi-stage hydraulic fracturing of the rock formations. Drilling times are longer and may go down 2,000 to 3,000 metres to shale formations or 1,500 metres to tight sand layers. A coal bed methane well could be completed in three days while the shale formations could take a month.


More wells are clustered on a single pad. There is more water use, more dust, more noise, more traffic and probably more controversy.


Using large amounts of water to open fractures in the rocks is a major source of conflict, although experiments with carbon dioxide and nitrogen are ongoing. 


Alberta Environment allocates about 10 billion cubic metres of water a year to the various sectors. Irrigation receives more than 40 percent of the annual allocation, while water for fracturing receives 0.07 percent. 


Fracking has been around for more than 50 years, and there were problems with the process in the past, particularly with the way waste fluids were stored in the 1990s, said CSUR president Kevin Heffernan. 


“We are seeing a trend in operators and operating practices with a lot more introspection and thinking about their operations and how they can do them better,” he said. 


Keeping up with the technology is a challenge for regulators, said Bob Willard of Alberta’s Energy Resources Conservation Board.


“We have a fairly strong regulatory foundation in this province and as the resource changes, we believe the regulatory environment should also change with it,” he said.


Landowner and community concerns about the effects of these activities are increasing. The public wants easy to understand and easy to find information.


In January, the board will launch a website that provides full information on the kind of fluids and chemicals used in the fracturing process. A similar site called fracfocus.org already exists in the United States. 


The board is also switching to more regional oversight, in which information is based on plays (hydrocarbon reservoirs) rather than single wells.


Companies working within a large play will be challenged to co-operate and share more information with each other and the public. 


A company will be encouraged to talk about its drilling plans with municipalities and local synergy groups for the coming year. 


Companies may be asked to co-ordinate some of their activities on road and water use as well as how they might affect local land use and watershed plans. 


Current regulations require energy companies to inform people living within a radius of 100 or 200 metres of activity, but people living beyond those boundaries are also affected and frequently told nothing. Willard said that needs to change.


“We want to support science and innovation, but we see a need for growing and planning and increased co-operation among the companies and increased information for the landowner and enhanced community engagement,” he said.

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