Resource Wise New Brunswick
New Brunswick shale gas opponents couldn’t have been pleased with Dr. John Cherry’s presentation to them. Is it the way to get things moving finally?
It’s a great day when a renowned and recognized scientist comes to our province to help us understand one more piece of the puzzle to continue the safe extraction ofNew Brunswick shale gas. Since Premier Gallant announced a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing almost a year ago, both sides in the shale debate have hoped the best possible decision can be made for the province.
A commission of non-experts appointed by Gallant studying hydraulic fracturing, while accepting submissions from fellow non-experts such as the New Brunswick Anti Shale Gas Alliance, are also hearing from experts in the multidisciplinary field of shale gas. One of those experts is Dr. John Cherry, a renowned scientist in the field of groundwater monitoring and remediation.
A brief description of Dr. Cherry details his accomplishments:
Dr. John Cherry, is Adjunct Professor, School of Engineering, University of Guelph. John was a professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Waterloo from 1971 to 2006, when he took mandatory retirement. He continues as Director of the University Consortium for Field Focused Groundwater Contamination Research at the University of Guelph. Dr. John Cherry is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and has received awards for research concerning groundwater contamination from many scientific and professional organizations. John is the co-inventor on several patents pertaining to equipment for groundwater monitoring and remediation.
Dr. Cherry has shared his knowledge in the ever-growing and necessary field of groundwater monitoring and methods to remediate when accidents happen. In his own words:
In 1988, I helped start the University Consortium for Field-Focused Groundwater Contamination Research, which involves eight universities — four in the United States and four in Canada. As the founding director, I’ve continued in this position even now in my retirement. This organization is unique in that it receives large funding from many corporations and also government agencies, and has continuously for 24 years. I’m proud because it has provided many, many excellent research opportunities for numerous graduate students across North America. The students are out there dealing with real problems, meeting people from industry, government and academia, getting their hands dirty, and appreciating the range of interesting problems that are in need of solutions.
Groundwater remediation is described on Wikipedia as follows:
…the process that is used to treat polluted groundwater by removing the pollutants or converting them into harmless products. Groundwater is water present below the ground surface that saturates the pore space in the subsurface. Globally, between 25 per cent and 40 per cent of the world’s drinking water is drawn from boreholes and dug wells. Groundwater is also used by farmers to irrigate crops and by industries to produce everyday goods. Most groundwater is clean, but groundwater can become polluted, or contaminated as a result of human activities or as a result of natural conditions.
The many and diverse activities of humans produce innumerable waste materials and by-products. Historically, the disposal of such waste have not been subject to many regulatory controls. Consequently waste materials have often been disposed of or stored on land surfaces where they percolate into the underlying groundwater. As a result, the contaminated groundwater is unsuitable for use.
Current practices can still impact groundwater, such as the over application of fertilizer or pesticides, spills from industrial operations, infiltration from urban runoff, and leaking from landfills. Using contaminated ground water causes hazards to public health through poisoning or the spread of disease, and the practice of groundwater remediation has been developed to address these issues. Contaminants found in ground water cover a broad range of physical, inorganic chemical, organic chemical, bacteriological, and radioactive parameters. Pollutants and contaminants can be removed from ground water by applying various techniques thereby making it safe for use.
There are many causes of groundwater contamination. Groundwater.org describes contamination from the following, for example: storage tanks, septic systems, uncontrolled hazardous waste disposal sites, landfills, chemicals and road salts, and airborne contaminants.
Groundwater contamination isn’t limited to one culprit and some pollutants are natural, not man-made at all. The methods to monitor and remediate are improving. Technologies change. Dr. Cherry himself co-holds patents on technologies. One of the main concerns when it comes to hydraulic fracturing is groundwater contamination from chemicals used and from methane migrating into aquifers.
Interestingly, Dr. Cherry doesn’t say this happens; he says there hasn’t been enough research in to it. Additionally, Cherry said there’s no way of monitoring groundwater that would measure the impact on the resource. He argues that governments must fund the research for ways in which to do this and says Alberta would be the place to conduct this research. (A proposed project in Pennsylvania fell through due to research funding not received from the U.S. Energy Department.)
We appreciate the need for constant monitoring of groundwater near shale gas operations. We agree with Dr. Cherry that there’s a need for research, current and ongoing. Not everyone agrees that we know nothing or that if there are accidents they can’t be mitigated.
Bonnie Swift is a Professional Civil/Environmental Engineer, Chemical Technologist and MBA who has consulted in the environmental industry for over 20 years. For several years she has acted as an Environmental Chairperson for the International Right of Way Association. She has taught environmental courses on contamination and environmental regulations across Canada. Ms. Swift says the following:
In Canada, vertical fracing has been applied in hundreds of thousands of oil and gas wells for over 60 years yet there has never been any documented case of groundwater contamination as a result of the application. This is a very good indication that the general safety risk is low.
As for the non-conventional use, it has been applied in Canada since the early 1990’s, so for about 20 years, also on thousands of wells, still with no documented cases of groundwater contamination linked to the application. Other considerations to note is that our geology, regulations, and engineering practices play a big role and that may have influenced this low risk.
In saying this, there other regions of the world where this may not be case. It is complicated, and that is why no one size fits all approach works when it comes to the practice…most shale gas plays involve rock layers located 1 to 3 km below the surface, well below any groundwater aquifers…
…the University of Texas released a study that found no evidence that the hydraulic fracturing of shale to extract gas has ever contaminated groundwater. When the study was completed on water wells that had evidence of contamination, they were all a result of spills, leaking ponds or other near surface conditions. This is a logical finding because these things would have the shortest and easiest environmental pathways to groundwater. They are also the most preventable.
So, if fracing ever did cause groundwater contamination, is it possible that the contamination can be cleaned-up? Yes, it is possible. Environmental engineers remediate groundwater aquifers all the time. While I have never remediated groundwater due to fracing, I have worked on numerous groundwater remediation projects related to oil and gas and have been doing so for years. Most of these are older wells constructed in the 60s and 70s when groundwater protection regulations were not adequate. The success of the clean-up depends on the type, concentration, and extent of the contamination.
One must remember natural gas is non toxic; the majority of it is methane which is the same gas animals and people produce. However, natural gas is dangerous because it can ignite. Natural gas is also relatively easy to remediate as once you shut down the gas well and seal it off with cement, you can use various engineering systems to vent the gas out of the groundwater. You do not have to vent it permanently, just until the remaining gas in the water well is gone.
Natural gas can also occur naturally and it often shows up in water wells were no gas drilling has ever taken place. People who live in these areas may need permanent systems to vent the gas. Sometimes in areas where aquifers have naturally occurring methane you may not have gas in your well for years and it then suddenly shows up. This is usually a result of well draw down and pressure loss that allows the natural methane to seep in.
I should also note that the sources of gas in a well can now be traced using stable isotope tracing so the cause of a gas leak, natural or industry caused, can now be accurately determined…
As for the chemicals used, it is important to note the majority of the fracing chemicals used in Canada are not persistently toxic. They don’t linger in the environment like pesticides, herbicides and other dangerous chemicals. Many of them are food grade. Diesel fuel previously used in drilling can now been replaced with environmentally sensitive synthetic oils.
They are also applied in very low concentrations, usually around 0.1%. In these very low concentrations there may be no human health risk at all or at best it would be very low.
Another myth out there is that hundreds of different chemicals are used at one time. This never happens. Typically less than a dozen are used at any time and many times it is less that that. The public should also understand that now there are very advanced technologies used to remediate groundwater and in many cases that remediation can be completed in a reasonable time frame…
I should note that most cases of groundwater contamination, involving gas come from surface casing failures. This is a cement casing applied to cover the well production casing and is used to protect the groundwater. According to several scientific papers, this applies in a significant majority of the cases. The good news is that casing failures are rare, but they can happen. This is especially the case if the groundwater protection regulations are relaxed or removed as they were in some jurisdictions of the US. When this occurs, the likelihood of gas contamination is higher because the monitoring and pressure testing of the wells may not be conducted using best management practices. Thankfully, we have not relaxed our ground water regulations in Canada.
This sounds positive, from another expert in the field.
It’s surprising Dr. Cherry says his research would be better done in Alberta. Dr. Cherry does know New Brunswick. When the former Conservative Party established the New Brunswick Energy Institute, one of the members was Dr. Cherry. The initial $1 million investment in the Institute was for research into shale gas. In the summer of 2014, the Institute received a further $500,000 for baseline water testing and monitoring in New Brunswick, Dr. Cherry’s forte. Theres been a successful shale gas industry in the province for over 15 years, with regular Department of the Environment monitoring of air quality and groundwater. The following is one of the Institute’s educational videos:
Interestingly Dr. Cherry’s background in New Brunswick and that he has patented groundwater monitoring and remediation never came out in his interviews or presentations. Dr. Cherry was invited to speak to people in Fredericton and to present to the New Brunswick Commission on Hydraulic Fracturing by the New Brunswick Anti Shale Gas Alliance. The CBC article headline says, “Fracking opponent cautions against lifting moratorium.” Despite Dr. Cherry saying there’s not been enough research in to shale gas, Information AM in Fredericton described Dr. Cherry as “…one of Canada’s top experts on the impact of hydrofracking on the environment.”
Although Dr. Cherry says he is neither an opponent or an advocate for shale gas, he’s done at least one presentation outside of New Brunswick that paints a negative picture of shale gas. He’s also made presentations where he’s said policies about shale gas must be based in science. He’s been on two different committees where the agreed-upon recommendations never said “moratorium” or “ban”.
There’s no doubt that despite the fact New Brunswick has some of the most rigorous regulations in North America to protect groundwater and the environment, the way forward must include science and regulations that change as we learn more. Dr. Cherry says New Brunswick should not lift the moratorium on shale gas extraction. He more or less dismisses Gallant’s Commission’s ability to make recommendations to government as they won’t be based in science as the science, Cherry claims, isn’t there. There are many experts who disagree with him.
When we look at the crux of Dr. Cherry’s message to New Brunswick, perhaps it gives us a glimpse into his thinking:
“Governments need to fund the science necessary to figure that out before it can think about coming up with regulations to allow hydraulic fracturing, he said…Cherry and his colleagues have been trying to gather enough research money to start doing some of the work that could reveal how to monitor the impact of hydraulic fracturing on groundwater.” Cherry says, ““The fact that shale gas development is a big experiment in this context is not reason enough on its own to condemn this form of energy extraction. Other forms of energy such as nuclear and large hydroelectric projects were initially big experiments. What sets shale gas apart is the absence of a commitment by government to the design and monitoring of the experiment.” Telegraph Journal, November 19, 2015
If the Anti-Shale group was hoping Dr. Cherry would come out against shale gas, it was disappointed. After Dr. Cherry’s departure there’s no wonder Jim Emberger of the Anti Shale Gas Alliance said Cherry isn’t speaking for the Alliance.
Could it be that Dr. Cherry has a vested interest in how New Brunswick proceeds with shale gas? If he does, so what? Let him set up shop in the province to help us move forward with shale extraction.