Chantier Politique

February 13, 2016

English Edition, No. 4

Quebec Bill 106

Legitimate Concerns Over Fracking

On December 10, 2016, the Couillard Liberal government passed Bill 106: An Act to implement the 2030 Energy Policy and to amend various legislative provisions. The government is attempting to allay the fears and concerns of municipalities, farmers and local populations living in proximity to the exploration and operation sites of the oil and gas industry.

Quebec’s underlying bedrock contains non-negligible quantities of natural gas trapped in a geological formation known as the Utica Shale. This geological formation is present in the St. Lawrence Lowlands between Montreal and Quebec City. The area between Portneuf and Beaupré near Quebec City is also potentially rich in oil, as it is part of the same rock formation. The Utica Shale is comprised primarily of low permeability shales that contain non-negligible quantities of natural gas (mainly methane), similar to what is already being extracted in Pennsylvania through the hydraulic fracturing method known as fracking.

Because the Utica Shale formation is not very permeable, the only way to release the methane (or oil) trapped in the shale is to drill a vertical well, which is then deflected horizontally for a distance of 1 to 2 km. Once the well is drilled, huge quantities of water totalling millions of litres or the equivalent of several thousand loads of water-filled tanker trucks are pumped under high pressure into the well. This fluid is enriched with a retaining agent or proppant (sand or ceramic microbeads) that fills the fractures in the rock caused by pressurized water and eventually allows the gas trapped in the shale to escape.

(click photo to enlarge)

The injected fluid also contains about 0.5 per cent of chemical additives, predominantly toxic biocides, intended to prevent the development of possible bacteria, which would complicate the extraction process. Section 80 of Bill 106 describes this entire process of hydraulic and chemical fracturing ("fracking") as "a well by physical, chemical or other stimulation."

The mixture of liquid once injected under pressure is then partially recovered a few hours or days later and deposited on the ground in large recovery tanks as "brine" (term used in Bill 106), ready for re-use or to be moved to permanent storage. Generally, neighbouring municipalities close to the wells have refused to treat the brine, as municipal wastewater filtration systems are not designed to filter complex wastewater from fracking wells. For this reason, the operators of fracking wells resort eventually to storage of their brine in either natural underground reservoirs or those created during fracking.

Who is Responsible for Environmental Damage?

Chapter IV,  "Permanent Well Closure and Site Restauration Plan," Section 106, paragraph 2,  states that once the fracking and drilling of the wells has been completed,  the company responsible must submit a report on "the condition of the territory affected by the work or activities" and, on the basis of that report, the Minister gives his "opinion" as to whether or not there exists "a risk for the environment or for human health and safety."

The question arises whether or not "the Minister's opinion" is based on the best scientific and environmental practices for the decontamination and rehabilitation of hydraulic fracturing sites.

Those best practices include treating the contaminated or polluted sites and returning damaged or degraded land to a state where it can once again be safely used. Chapter VII, section 123, "Optimum Petroleum Recovery and Brine" states that: "An exploration, production or storage licence holder must recover petroleum and brine optimally using generally recognized best practices for ensuring the safety of persons and property, environmental protection and optimal recovery of the resource." According to the narrow definition of best practices contained in Bill 106, the company responsible for fracking and operations is not required to return the contaminated site to its original state, let alone monitor the site once the well has been abandoned. It is well-known that most fracking operations only recover part of the wastewater, and that brine leaks into existing or reactivated fractures. This reveals the extent to which the narrow definition of best practices contained in Bill 106 regarding the storage of brine to ensure "the safety of persons and property, environmental protection and optimal recovery of the resource" remains problematic.

People are Forced to Pay the Price for Fracking

Chapter VI, Section 119, entitled "Liability and Protective Measures" states:

"An exploration, production or storage licence holder or a junction pipeline authorization holder is required […] to make reparation for any injury caused through or in the course of their work or activities, including a loss of non-use value relating to a public resource, in particular due to emanations or migrations of gas or spills of oil or other liquids" while at the same time "The holder must provide proof, in the form and manner the Government determines by regulation, that they are solvent to an amount determined by the Government."

The experience of workers in Quebec and the rest of Canada is that when a company is ordered to pay for damages caused to the environment, it always tries to find a loophole. Once all legal recourse has been exhausted, the company can avail itself of the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA) to avoid paying damages.

Added to all this are the dangers created by the re-activation of fractures and dormant faults near zones where hydraulic fracturing occurs. A study in Alberta and British Columbia, as well as another in the United States by the U.S. Geological Survey found a link between an increase in seismic activity in several provinces and states and the injection of wastewater into storage wells. For example, in 2011 an earthquake in Oklahoma of a magnitude of 5.7 on the seismic scale was recorded close to wastewater storage wells as a result of fracking, injuring two people and destroying 14 houses.[1] This occurred in an area that was not previously recognized as an active seismic zone. Such a geological phenomenon represents the movement of fractures and dormant faults that have been reactivated by the introduction of fluids (in this case wastewater from fracking operations) into underground reservoirs.

Underground reservoirs for storing brines, a fracking by-product, are often located in porous rock formations generally located closer to the surface but deeper than groundwater to avoid contamination. However, scientists have raised the issue that in the absence of long-term studies to monitor the movement of brines along fractures and faults where earthquakes have been observed, as in the case of Alberta, British Columbia and Oklahoma, there is no guarantee that  the brines could not migrate towards rock formations containing groundwater and contaminate that water. This could prove disastrous for municipalities and farms located close to fracking operations which depend solely on groundwater to supply local human and animal populations with safe drinking water.

The valley of the St. Lawrence is located on either side of the St. Lawrence River, which runs along the major Logan fault which geologically is recognized as an old tectonic rift, as well as known and unknown secondary faults located on either side of the River. Fracking and/or brine storage operations near those faults could reactivate them.

August 16, 2016 demonstration against Bill 106

One needs to ask the Premier of Quebec what scientific research is behind Bill 106, that authorizes oil and gas companies to engage in large-scale fracking and underground toxic wastewater storage operations in the St. Lawrence Lowlands. The Quebec government must fully disclose the scientific research behind the Act and an opportunity should then be given to all those concerned to challenge the conclusions that have been drawn, which by the way, is a requirement of scientific procedure. Any risk that poses a threat to life and the natural and social environment, including water, must be examined and dealt with. Until this is done, Bill 106 remains an irresponsible Act jeopardizing the life and safety of tens of thousands of people and the general well-being of the social and natural environment.

Note

1. Becklumb, Penny et al, Shale Gas in Canada, Environmental Risks and Regulation, Library of Parliament, Publication 2015-18e, 2015, Ottawa, p. 14 (http://www.lop.parl.gc.ca/Content/LOP/ResearchPublications/2015-18-e.pdf)

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