Scientists focus on hydraulic fracking fallout in B.C.

An NDP panel on fracturing would find several studies are already well underway

A gas sniffing drone is used to detect methane levels from B.C.' gas fields. | Geoscience BC

Provided a new BC Green Party-backed NDP minority government lasts long enough to tick off all the big priority items on its ambitious agenda, it might eventually get around to fulfilling the promise of striking a special scientific panel to study the impacts of hydraulic fracturing.

“This will include assessment of impacts on water and, given recent minor earthquakes in the area, what role gas production has in seismic activity,” the BC NDP’s platform states.

Such a panel will find that several B.C.-focused scientific studies either have already been done or are underway. Some go even further than what the NDP plank on fracking contemplates.

One study involving NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), for example, is using sniffer drones to detect methane in the region where gas wells operate – data that can then be matched with Geoscience BC’s Natural Gas Atlas, which uses carbon isotope “fingerprinting” to identify possible origins of the methane.

“This is something that’s really important to us – depending on what this review of fracking might look like – is to make sure that they understand that there has been a whole lot of work already done, so they don’t have to start from scratch,” said Richard Truman, director of external relations for Geoscience BC. “There’s a lot of stuff already going on in B.C. A lot of it is stuff that isn’t going on in other places.”

Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling – which unlock trapped gases in shale rock – have been used for many years now in B.C. But the NDP acknowledges that oil and gas drilling in northeastern B.C. has the potential for “significant expansion.”

Even if a liquefied natural gas industry never takes root in B.C., the Montney formation in the Peace region is so massive and prolific that it gives oil and gas producers there a big competitive advantage over many other regions in North America. Oil and gas companies have therefore been investing billions in the Montney.

The NDP says it wants to be sure that an anticipated expansion of fracking in B.C. is done safely and in a way that protects the environment.

The main concerns around fracking are induced seismicity (earthquakes), groundwater contamination, fugitive methane emissions and water consumption.

When a well is fracked, it can induce a mini-earthquake. So can geothermal energy production.

The induced seismic activity from fracking in B.C. is already fairly well understood, thanks to a 2012 study commissioned by the BC Oil and Gas Commission.

Most of the mini-quakes that have occurred have been in the magnitude-3 range, which is low enough that it isn’t felt. One was 4.6 on the Richter scale – powerful enough to be felt but causing no damage.

“Ninety-five per cent of the events are below [magnitude] 3 that we’ve recorded,” said Carlos Salas, vice-president of oil and gas for Geoscience BC.

Since the study was commissioned, the number of seismic monitoring stations in northeastern B.C. has been expanded to 13 from three, so a lot of data on seismic activity in the northeast gas fields is now available.

Perhaps the biggest unknown is hydraulic fracturing’s impact on groundwater used for drinking.

To address that knowledge gap, Geoscience BC has completed a groundwater mapping exercise to identify where the aquifers are and how deep they go, and the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) department of earth, ocean and atmospheric sciences is preparing a controlled natural gas leak to study the impacts on groundwater.

When methane leaks into a freshwater aquifer, it can change the chemistry, said Roger Beckie, who is leading the UBC study. For example, it can increase the amount of dissolved iron in the water. That doesn’t pose a health hazard, but it can affect the water’s taste and appearance.

“There’s no real alarmist kind of thing going on here,” Beckie said, “but it’s something we want to cross off to make sure.”

He said the results of the study should be available by mid-2018.

As for fugitive methane emissions from gas wells, to date it has been a challenge to determine if higher levels of methane in an area are biogenic (from dairy farms, swamps or other natural sources) or thermogenic (from natural gas wells).

A study published in April by the David Suzuki Foundation and St. Francis Xavier University’s department of earth sciences concluded that methane levels from B.C.’s oil and gas sector may be 2.5 times higher than previously estimated.

The study found that old, decommissioned conventional wells are more prone to leaks than the “younger” unconventional wells (i.e., fracked wells).

“These results reinforce the need for regulators to pay attention not only to modern equipment, but also legacy wells and infrastructure,” the study concluded.

The study also noted that, compared with American natural-gas-producing regions, “natural gas activity in the Montney formation may emit both less frequently and less severely than U.S. comparators.”

Geoscience BC is now experimenting with a kind of carbon isotope fingerprinting technique to identify the unique signatures of methane from specific formations.

“What we’re trying to do is fingerprint the natural gas,” Salas said. “Each field, each pool, will have a certain geochemical fingerprint based on the carbon isotopes. If there was a fugitive gas leak … you could figure out where that molecule came from, and you could remediate that in a much more cost-effective fashion.”

It also helps companies zero in on the more lucrative shale oil and gas deposits because it can tell them if a formation has only dry gas or wet gas as well. (There is far more value in wet gas.)

As for detecting the methane, Geoscience BC is working with NASA’s JPL on a project that uses mini mass spectrometers mounted on a drone to sniff out methane at low altitudes.

“It will measure the fugitive gas leaks in real time,” Salas said. “It will give you the carbon isotopes [so] you can tell whether it’s biogenic or thermogenic.”

As for the use of fresh water in fracking, that has been a fairly significant concern in B.C. simply because water is so abundant, so it’s relatively cheap.

The BC Oil and Gas Commission estimates that, in 2014, the two biggest operators in B.C. used one million cubic metres in their fracking operations – enough to fill 800 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

But some companies are starting to reduce their water use through things like “energized fluids” (liquefied carbon dioxide or nitrogen) or “grey water” from sewage treatment plants.

“Companies, wherever possible, [are] just staying away from water,” Salas said.