Impact of Hydraulic Fracturing on Canada`s Underground Water

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Impactof Hydraulic Fracturing on Canada’s Underground Water


Impact of Hydraulic Fracturing on Canada’s Underground Water

Reliablestatistics indicate that 30% of Canadians use groundwater from wellsand other municipal systems for domestic purposes. In the ruralareas, 80% of the population relies solely on groundwater (Schindleret. al 2006, 7214). Therefore, contamination of groundwater creates amassive impact on the Canadian population. Groundwater contaminationis often attributed to point and non-point sources. The latterclassification includes road salt, acid rain, pesticides, andfertilizers. On the other hand, point sources include spills, deepwell disposals, underground storage tanks, industrial waste disposalsites, and mine tailings (Al et. al, 2012). Nevertheless, hydraulicfracturing has the greatest impact on Canada’s underground water.

ShaleGas Extraction

Natural gasderived from shale rock is referred to as shale gas. Canada hasextensive shale gas resources. The discovery of shale gas has beenembraced for two major reasons. Firstly, shale gas releases fewergreenhouse gases than both coal and oil. Therefore, natural gas playsa fundamental role in the transition from fossil fuels to cleanfuels. The global economy has established goals of ensuring alow-carbon society. Furthermore, the discovery of natural gas willreduce the dependence on Middle East countries for oil. It will alsocurtail the reliance on countries such as Venezuela and Russia fornatural gas (Adams, 2012).

Nevertheless,shale gas is an unconventional form of natural gas. Along with othergas sources such as coalbed methane and tight gas sands, shale gasrequires special methods of extraction. This is because shale gas isfound deep within the earth’s crust. Conventional means ofextraction would be too cost-intensive if they were used forextraction of shale gas (Adams, 2012). Consequently, this has led tothe use of horizontal drilling techniques referred to as hydraulicfracturing.


Hydraulicfracturing occurs when large amounts of fluid are pumped into a gaswell at high pressure. The high pressure is designed to causemini-earthquakes in the surrounding rock mass. Subsequently, cracksand fractures are created within the rock mass. These cracks serve aspathways for the gas as it ends up in the well. Technologicaladvancements in hydraulic fracturing seem to have made it easier forcompanies to extract plenty of shale gas from one source. This is dueto the possibility of drilling over 30 wells while fracturing eachwell over ten times (All Consulting, 2012).

Unsurprisingly,hydraulic fracturing causes plenty of environmental effects to theenvironment. Firstly, all cases of gas and oil developmentcustomarily lead to surface disruption. Conventional developments ofoil and gas also have sources of contamination such as lubricants andfuels. The nature of hydraulic fracturing fluids also creates causefor concern. Hydraulic fluids are composed of various chemicals mixedwith gallons of water. The chemicals used prevent the growth ofmicroorganisms in the fractures created through hydraulic processes(Arthur et. al, 2008). Also, the chemicals prevent the corrosion ofmetal pipes. Sand is also used as a component in the mixture ofhydraulic fluids so as to prevent the closure of the cracks while thegas flows. Therefore, hydraulic fracturing typically contains theharmful chemicals used in conventional gas and oil extractions alongwith other hazardous chemicals. The flow back water seeping from theunderground has a large quantity of naturally-occurring contaminants(Arthur et. al, 2012). These contaminants emanate from shale rock.

As expected,many drilling companies rarely reveal the exact chemical compositionof the hydraulic fluids used during gas extraction (AER, 2012).Nevertheless, the resultant environmental effects betray the toxicityof the chemicals used in drilling. Even low doses can cause majorhealth effects (Bamberger and Oswald 2012, 59). Hydraulic fracturingliquids are usually inserted deeper than the water table. This isbecause shale gas typically occurs thousands of feet belowunderground water. Nonetheless, gas wells are drilled intounderground water aquifers. Several levels of protection are used toprevent toxic substances from seeping into the water supply. Forexample, cement and steel casing is used to coat the wellbores atdepths below 1000 feet. Therefore, the extra protection seeks toprevent possible leaks of hydrocarbons and hydraulic fluids into thegroundwater aquifers (Bamberger and Oswald 2012, 62). Ultimately,adopting such forms of protection only limits rather than eliminatethe problem.

Granted,significant portions of hydraulic fluids are pumped back to theground’s surface once the drilling process yields shale gas.Nevertheless, scientific studies have revealed that as much as 70% ofhydraulic fluids are trapped underground (Coussens and Martinez,2014). The wastewater that comes to the surface is sometimes kept inopen pits before being pumped to treatment facilities for eitherdisposal or recycling. In some instances, the hydraulic fluids mayoverflow when rain falls in the area. The fluids may also contaminategroundwater once they seep into the ground. Natural processes do notsuffice to degrade some contaminants. In many cases, the contaminantsthat affect shallow groundwater almost always contaminate undergroundwater (Schindler et. al 2006, 7216). Public water resources are alsocontaminated since shallow underground water is in constant motion.

In considerationof this danger, some companies use airtight loop systems that collectwastewater, sift some water for recycling, and dump the rest in steeltanks. However, these best practices were only deployed fairlyrecently. For the most part, wastewater was inadvertently allowed tooverflow and trickle to the groundwater level. This is because thedrilling operations last for several months (AER, 2012). During theextended period, energy companies use the drilling sites as storagefor hazardous chemicals.

It is criticalto recognize that governmental agencies have failed to gauge theextent to which domestic water supply has been compromised owing tohydraulic fracturing operations. The claims for and against hydraulicfracturing have not yielded enough data for complete analysis. Therealso exists shallow understanding of the various means through whichcontamination of underground water could occur in future. Besides,the preceding time has been hardly sufficient to gauge the potentialfor cumulative and long-term impact on underground water. Forexample, intense shale gas developments have been ongoing for only afew decades (Coussens and Martinez, 2014). Long-term effects couldonly be evaluated in at least a century of hydraulic fracturingoperations.

Discernibleimpact on underground water takes several decades to develop and alsogets harder to reverse. Notwithstanding, experience from conventionalcases of gas and oil developments can help to establish a reliablepattern. This is because hydraulic fracturing processes use the samechemicals deployed in conventional cases. As noted, hydraulicfracturing developments also use other undocumented, potentiallytoxic chemicals. Furthermore, the initial stages of underground watercontamination can help to highlight later effects. A single gas wellfrom conventional development could have an array of adverse effectson underground water. This provides perspective on the heightenedpotential of the many gas wells that could be sunk on a single sitecourtesy of hydraulic fracturing. As noted, hydraulic fracturing onshale gas developments causes mini-earthquakes in the surroundingrock mass (Adams, 2012). These seismic stresses can increase thepermeability of the rocks. Saline water and gas can move through theresultant faults and fractures.

Shale gasextraction has been aggressively pursued in regions such as Quebec,Alberta, and British Columbia. Other areas of interest include NovaScotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, and Saskatchewan. Canadian mediaoutlets have also helped to articulate the widespread concern for thesafety of underground water. The public has progressively becomefamiliar with the risks of hydraulic fracturing. The clamor for morestringent regulations has echoed similar sentiments in the UnitedStates. As noted, the North American region has been endowed withshale gas deposits (Coussens and Martinez, 2014). Therefore, legalmeasures adopted in one country will automatically have implicationsin another.


Granted, thethreats from accidental spills and inadequate disposal of wastewatercan never be removed in entirety. Nevertheless, deploying effectiveregulations can help to minimize the impact. Regulations can only beeffective when there exists a framework for monitoring performance.There also needs to be adequate inspectors that ensure setregulations are followed to the latter. Besides, the regulatoryauthorities need to have a thorough understanding of thecharacteristics of hydraulic fracturing fluids (AER, 2012). Thesecharacteristics include factors such as toxicity and mobility. Havinga broad understanding of such factors will lead to the design of asufficient monitoring system.

Investors in theCanadian oil and gas sector are responding to the claims about theendangerment of water sources due to hydraulic fracturing. In thisregard, they have adopted a tough stance with energy companies. Forexample, investors seek to know whether the company has establishedclear guidelines for their contractors to follow concerning the useof chemical ingredients. Harmful chemicals should not be used tofracture the company’s wells (AER, 2012). Also, investors wouldwant to know what proportion of the company’s oil wells utilizenon-toxic fluids. The energy company should also undertake stricttesting and monitoring of underground water before and after drillingoperations (Arthur et. al, 2012). This would serve to establish theimpact of hydraulic fracturing on underground water.

Furthermore,investors would want to know whether data on water quality waspublicly available. An energy company that uses contractors shouldadopt necessary agreements, standards, and policies beforehand. Thecontractors must guarantee to prevent contamination of undergroundwater whenever they use hydraulic fracturing techniques. Thesestandards may include clear specifications on the design andconstruction of oil wells. The wellbores also need to be reinforcedso as to prevent potential leak paths for hydraulic fluids andharmful hydrocarbons (Bexte et. al 2008, 65). Some of theseprotective measures include the deployment of closed loop systems toharness recovered hydraulic fracturing fluids. Well casings also needto be cemented so as to prevent potential leaks. Besides, thewastewater that is pumped to the ground surface should be properlydisposed to prevent it from percolating into the ground.

TheCase for Hydraulic Fracturing

Drilling andenergy companies have leapt to the defense of hydraulic fracturing.They point to the long period through which the process has beenemployed in drilling for oil. Hydraulic fracturing has been used inCanada and other regions of North America for over 60 years. Duringthis long period, there has never been a single case of waterpoisoning owing to hydraulic fracturing. None of the cases ofgroundwater contamination has been confirmed beyond reasonable doubtas due to hydraulic fluids (AER, 2012). Therefore, the drillingprocess ought to be given the benefit of the doubt.

The companiesalso cite existing legislative measures as being in support ofhydraulic fracturing. The Canadian environmental authorities lackjurisdiction over hydraulic fracturing processes. Therefore, thecompanies argue that the government would never grant them licensesif their activities were so harmful. Besides, the regulations did notrequire full disclosure of the composition of hydraulic fluids (AER,2012). In this regard, many drilling companies have exploited thisloophole by concealing the actual composition of chemical compoundsused in the extraction of shale gas.

Many energycompanies remain resolute in pleading their innocence. They neveracknowledge any liability for the incidents of water contamination.However, they are willing to compensate local residents that sufferthe worst effects of groundwater contamination. In some instances,companies supply portable water to persons living near shale gasoperations as they establish the merits of issued complaints. Theflow of underground water is slower than the flow of surface water.Consequently, it can take several decades for contamination owing tonon-degradable chemicals to cause discernible problems. The analysisand monitoring of oil wells have not been adequately developed. Newcontaminants can only be detected once a case of public health wasidentified (Cooley and Donnelly, 2012). In such instances,bureaucratic delays increase the likelihood of contamination.

Nevertheless, itis easy to understand why a single case of groundwater contaminationhas never been attributed to hydraulic fracturing. As discussed, theexact composition of hydraulic fluids has never been established.Legal provisions allow companies to maintain the secrecy of theiroperations. In fact, hydraulic fracturing has been linked to somedocumented cases of groundwater contamination. However, environmentalauthorities lacked sufficient information to guide them in making aconclusive decision. In other cases, chemicals used in hydraulicfracturing have been discovered in some wells. Notwithstanding,empirical evidence did not suffice to provide irrefutableconfirmation (Cooley and Donnelly, 2012). The potential effects ofhydraulic fracturing on underground water can only be anticipated inthe context of decades or centuries of shale gas developments.

Also, companiesmay not be able to hide behind legal loopholes for much longer.Upcoming legislation has endeavored to expose the exact compositionof hydraulic fracturing liquids. The fact that companies remainopposed to any such legislation proves their guilt. The drilling andenergy companies fear the likelihood of paying backdated fines forthe contamination of groundwater. There could also be otherlitigation risks when clear connections are made between hydraulicfracturing and contamination of underground water in Canada.Corporate licenses to operate shale gas extraction have beenjeopardized due to rising complaints in particular areas. Companiesalso risk reputational damage if their activities are finally provedto be harmful to the environment. The willingness of energy companiesto compensate adversely affected victims speaks volumes about theirculpability (Cooley and Donnelly, 2012). A full-scale admission ofguilt is not necessary to establish fact from fiction.


Indeed,hydraulic fracturing can be cited as a major cause of undergroundwater contamination. Unconventional methods of shale gas extractioncause many harmful effects on the environment. The health risksassociated with hydraulic fracturing liquids threaten to contaminatenot only underground water but also the surrounding soil. Poorconstruction and design of wells also threaten civilian populationthrough contamination of water sources. This may occur in twodistinct ways. Firstly, the gas wells may develop fissures throughwhich toxic chemicals permeate into underground water aquifers. Thegas wells may also disintegrate completely which causes widespreadcontamination (Adams, 2012). Besides, the wastewater that resultsfrom shale gas extraction also needs to be disposed of so as toprevent it from percolating into the ground and contaminatingunderground water sources.

Furthermore,more than half of the wastewater remains trapped beneath the earth’ssurface. The exact composition of hydraulic fracturing fluids is yetto be ascertained. Legal provisions also preclude companies fromrevealing the composition of chemicals contained in their hydraulicfluids. Energy companies have exploited this legal loophole bydiversifying their hydraulic fracturing operations. Nevertheless, thedevastating contamination of underground water in Canada can beattributed to hydraulic fracturing.


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