For nearly 100 years we have been drilling holes through our groundwater in search of our rich oil and gas deposits, with regulatory standards improving over the decades, first under the Petroleum and Natural Gas Conservation Board, then the Energy Resources Conservation Board, then the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board, and finally the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER).
In the past, complaints by landowners of groundwater contamination have been routinely negotiated between the landowner and the drilling company, generally leading to a new water well being drilled and no conclusion found as to whether contaminations were natural or industry caused.
In 2006 public complaints in southeastern Alberta (Rosebud) were made about drinking water, alleging contamination (including large volumes of methane gas) by Encana due to hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) of the underground coal seams. Under pressure, and after decades of fracking, Alberta Environment finally launched a Baseline Groundwater Study through the University of Calgary requiring all coalbed methane drilling and fracking to do gas analysis of groundwater before drilling. Thousands of samples were taken over several years and tested at the cost of over $20 million, shared by industry and government. Almost a decade later there is no conclusion to the question: Has fracking contaminated any groundwater in Alberta or not? No official answer appears to be available.
The Baseline Groundwater Well Assessment (March 2011) by Alberta Environment was unable to draw any firm conclusions about any contamination of groundwater by industry due to inconsistent sampling before and after drilling. However, the few dozen pre-fracking samples that met quality standards had measurable levels of propane, an indication of possible contamination, but no further analysis was completed. In 2015 we don’t know if or how groundwater contamination occurred and how to prevent it.
Recommendations for further testing and analysis by the advisory panel of scientists were ignored, since then, tens of thousands of deeper shale gas wells have gone ahead without regulation requiring groundwater testing before drilling. We appear to have learned nothing from the Rosebud fiasco, which is currently before the courts at considerable public and private expense. Again, it is ‘advised’, not required, by the AER that baseline testing be done to allow conclusions on specific water wells that become contaminated.
Clearly there was a lack of will t find out this profoundly important answer under the former PC government. Today fracking has expanded dramatically and we are faced with the same question in relation to Alberta’s water systems. How is it that, despite the risk of our limited drinking water being permanently tainted – especially in southern Alberta – we know little about impacts on our lifeblood – water?
In 2015, the Council of Canadian Academies, an independent organization of scientists raised serious concerns about the lack of information on adverse impacts of fracking. In a 260-page study the expert panel concluded that there simply isn't enough known about the impacts of fracking to declare it a completely benign practice, and that key elements of the provinces' regulatory systems "are not based on strong science and remain untested" while there is virtually no federal regulation.
In the meantime, energy companies are also using millions of litres of potable water each day in fracking, recycling some, but removing much of it permanently from the hydrological cycle. This is not stewardship. o
The new NDP government has indicated it will consult with experts, protect the public interest and base policy decisions on science. It is time for both the energy and environment ministers to act on this unacceptable ignorance and risk to our groundwater. Mandatory testing and prohibition on deep injection of our limited potable water in Alberta is urgent along with expanded research on existing impacts to our groundwater.
We owe it to ourselves and to all future generations.