Jun 17, 2011

The Wild West? Come on! Put your emotions in check


The on-line newsmagazine, The Tyee, recently ran an opinion piece of mine under the headline “The Wild West and Dysfunctional BC Politics: Fracking and sour gas deserve debate, but get cartoon treatment from the Clark government.”

My special thanks to Tyee editor David Beers or whoever it was who chose to run the image of Yosemite Sam to accompany the piece (Yosemite is one of my favourite Bugs Bunny Show characters).

Anyway, I reprint here an exchange of comments in response to the article. They offer some insights into how at least one (and possibly two) anonymous industry insiders viewed my commentary, which focused on Independent MLA Bob Simpson’s recent Private Members’ statement in the provincial legislature and Liberal MLA Pat Pimm’s embarrassing response to it. (Simpson’s statement outlined why he and fellow Independent MLA, Vicki Huntington, had called on Premier Christy Clark to appoint a special legislative committee to study BC’s rapidly expanding unconventional gas industry and provincial policies relating to it.)

The exchange is as follows.

Posted by “Cool Hand”

The Emotional Factor


Parfitt: policies in jurisdictions such as Quebec and New York State are being driven by mounting public fears

Some differences:

1. Unlike BC, AB, Texas, and Oklahoma, fer instance, which have been actively engaged in oil/gas drilling/production for over 60 years and have a Ministry/Department bureacracy dealing with these matters, QC and NY haven’t and don’t;

2. The shale gas/tight gas plays in QC and NY are relatively shallow compared to the much deeper plays in BC/AB and the southern U.S.;

3. The ng [natural gas] shale plays in QC and NY are in close proximity to a relatively large population base;

Ergo, some folk become emotionally (versus rationally) driven.

In that same vein, SK has a well-developed uranium mining industry and ON has a well-developed nuclear power industry. Imagine if uranium mining or nuclear power was proposed for BC?

The same emotional reaction exhibited in QC and NY would also occur out here with no provincial experience in those fields.

Posted by Ben Parfitt

Re: The emotional factor

“Cool Hand”, you’re obviously well informed on natural gas and energy industry issues. Do you work in the industry? I ask because you, too, hide behind a pseudonym.

To respond briefly to each of your three points:

1) BC, Alberta, Texas and Oklahoma do indeed have established gas industries, while Quebec and New York State may not. (Although it was actually in up-State New York in 1821 that the very first commercialized natural gas was first developed from a very shallow shale formation.) Readers of your comments may, however, draw the incorrect impression that BC and others have “60 years” experience with hydraulically fracturing or fracking unconventional gas-bearing formations in the manner presently employed. They do not. Combining numerous wells on a single well pad, drilling each well deep into the earth and then out in long horizontal reaches, and then pumping massive amounts of water down each well in “slickwater” fracking operations where chemical friction reducers are introduced to ease the water’s passage, was only perfected in the past decade and has only been in play in BC for a few years. At today’s biggest multi-well pads in BC, 600 Olympic swimming pool’s worth of water is pressure-pumped underground. No government agency that I am aware of has so much as a plan to quantify what the cumulative impacts on human health and safety and the environment are of such operations.

2) You suggest that the deeper depths at which shale formations are found in BC make our unconventional gas resources safer to develop. To date, according to the BC Oil and Gas Commission, there have been 18 reported “communications” between fracked wells in the province, meaning that unforeseen contamination corridors between wells spaced up to 750 metres apart have occurred. This is one reason why noted experts on fracking, such as Cornell University’s Anthony Ingraffea, refer to the below ground events induced by fracking as “non-linear chaos”.

3) Natural gas-bearing shale formations in Quebec and New York State are indeed much closer to large human populations than are BC’s. That will be of little comfort, however, to the residents of Pouce Coupe who had to flee their homes in 2009 following a well failure at an Encana well that was traced to a build-up of frack sand in the well piping and that resulted in highly toxic sour gas flowing into the night air. Should human health and safety and the environment count for less when there are fewer people around?

I agree that the fracking debate is an emotional one. It seems sensible then to have a hard look at it in a non-partisan way by our elected leaders or by an independent commission in a forum in which witnesses are called, a wide-range of professional opinion is sought, minutes are kept, the public has access and a report laying out policy recommendations is produced. You share this view, correct?

Posted by “reallife”

The emotional factor

Not sure about Cool Hands’ expertise but I have been involved with resource development as a service provider and a regulator for many years and continue to make my living in the industry.

1. Yes, the frac jobs have increased greatly in size and use much more fluid, propant and force than early jobs but it is still the same technology.

2. Communication between wells at depth is not a concern for safety of people or the environment. However, it could present commercial issues that may need addressing by the industry.

3. The release of gas at Pouce Coupe is only partially attributal to fraccing. Yes, apparently sand cut out a nipple and shame on Encana for not being on top of this – they should not have left a well untended while it is flowing back treatment fluids. A worse incident occurred many years ago near the Blueberry Indian Reserve where an oil well was being tested after fraccing. Sand cut out a section of pipe and very sour gas was released leading to evacuation of the reserve. This is not a condemnation of fraccing but does point to a need for industry to better staff its field operations.

4. Fraccing is not an issue that calls for a special investigation. However, the business of regulating the entire industry could benefit from a new look. It seems to me that best practices are only employed after an incident happens or an initial application is refused. I believe it would be better if the industry employed best practices at all times. Too many decisions are left to people in the field who are working for a firm that has submitted the lowest bid to the oil company. This too frequently leads to problems caused by cost cutting and lax efforts by the unmotivated field workers. Oil company executives should be held personally responsible for problems in the field. It has long been held that the safety levels in oil operations are inversely proportional to the distance from Calgary (executives do not like to travel a long ways to operations.)



Topics: , , ,