Fracking will cause ‘irreversible harm’
A worker pours salt into a mixer as he prepares drilling fluid – a combination of water, sand and chemicals – for fracking.
TIM SHAFFER, REUTERS
QUEBEC – A geological engineering professor whose specialty is rock mechanics and hydrogeology says hydraulic fracturing to free natural gas from shale rock formations will cause “irreversible harm” lasting thousands of years.
And the gas companies will be long gone, leaving behind costly remediation, Marc Durand said in an interview, suggesting the gas producers should be forced to establish a reserve fund.
“The billions required would be much more than all the profits beckoning now,” said the retired Université du Québec à Montréal professor.
The circulating gas left behind will threaten the water Quebecers drink and could jeopardize agriculture, he said. The Utica shale field gas deposits between Montreal and Quebec City lie under some of the best farmland in the province.
“Fracking” is the technique of pumping a mixture of water, sand and a cocktail of toxic chemicals under pressure into wells drilled horizontally to liberate the gas from the shale.
But Durand noted that fracking gets out only 20 per cent of the gas, a figure confirmed by Canada’s National Energy Board.
After maybe eight years of production, the gas companies will seal – and forget – the wells, Durand said.
The rock formations shattered by fracking will be “thousands of times more permeable,” allowing the remaining 80 per cent of shale gas and underground water, 10 times more salty than sea water, to continue circulating, bubbling to the surface through the disused gas wells.
Over time, methane could leak into the groundwater and gas leaks could gush, uncontrolled, into the air.
“Because this happens deep below, it is not visible on the surface,” Durand wrote in a paper raising questions about shale gas.
Durand wanted to present his scientific findings to the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement panel looking into on the impact of shale gas but could not meet the BAPE’s Nov. 25 deadline for briefs.
“It took me several months to do my research,” Durand said from his home in Shefford. “The environmentalists were already mobilized to testify, but scientific studies take several months to do.”
The BAPE had six months, starting last September, to hear about 200 briefs then travel to other jurisdictions where shale gas is being developed, before writing its report, which was handed to Environment Minister Pierre Arcand Feb. 28.
Arcand has not made public the report, which the government says it will use to write a new law raising royalties charged to the companies and regulating the shale-gas development.
The National Energy Board estimates there are 1,000 trillion cubic feet – or more – of shale gas in Canada, with about 200 trillion cubic feet in the Quebec Lowlands field.
“It was always there,” Durand said, though it was not possible to extract before the fracking process was developed.
Durand said he was surprised when he read the terms of the BAPE mandate – to reconcile sustainable development with shale-gas production.
“Shale gas is not renewable energy,” he said. “You burn it, and it is gone. “It is the antithesis of sustainable development,” he added. “It takes politicians to give a mandate to a commission to study how to have sustainable development with shale gas.
“The first question – should we do it or not? – was not given to the BAPE panel,” Durand said. “The government had already decided to go ahead with it when the panel was formed.”
Premier Jean Charest and Natural Resources Minister Nathalie Normandeau do not hide their enthusiasm for shale gas, seeing jobs, billions of dollars in new investments and the end of $2 billion a year in natural-gas imports from Alberta.
Normandeau let slip this week that, thanks to shale gas, the controversial Rabaska liquefied natural gas port in Lévis, across the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City, has been shelved.
And Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois, while stressing that shale-gas development should respect the environment and not endanger the health of Quebecers, has called for a moratorium until the safety of shale gas is clear.
But Marois is not opposed to developing Quebec’s shale-gas potential.
Former PQ premier Lucien Bouchard has entered the fray, as spokesman for the Association pétrolière et gazière du Québec, representing the shale-gas companies.
“They don’t know,” Durand said, adding that while he respects Marois and Bouchard, they lack the expertise to understand what is at stake.
“It’s geology,” he explained. “It is very technical, and the companies have sold them the idea that there is $15 billion to $20 billion of resources sleeping under our feet.”
Durand noted that gas companies are scrambling worldwide to stake their claims and trying to rush the process along, sometimes leaning on politicians.
They promote shale gas as a cleaner alternative to coal and oil.
But the companies’ assurances that shale-gas production is as safe as conventional gas production do not stand up, Durand says.
Conventional natural gas can be extracted without fracking and 95 per cent and more is recovered. Fracking leaves behind a chemical soup that includes radiation, the New York Times revealed this week, and 80 per cent of the gas stays in the ground.
Even though abandoned wells will be capped with concrete, Durand points to Quebec’s experience with crumbling bridges and overpasses.
“Each of the wells will still be there for a thousand years as the concrete degrades or the steel corrodes,” he said, adding, “I would say the lifespan of a well will be between 10 and 30 years.
“So in 10 years, we will have the first wells that collapse. What will we do then?”
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