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Coal Bed Methane Extraction: “Don't Worry. It's Not Fracking”

by Ken Summers

Photo of the drilling rig taken November 9, before drilling had begun.
Photo of the drilling rig taken November 9, before drilling had begun.

By now most Nova Scotians are aware that there is a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in Nova Scotia. The current government has assured us it will remain in place at least until after the reporting of the Wheeler Review in mid-2014.

The Wheeler Review is itself a response by the previous NDP government to the outcry about fracking, and to the clear lack of confidence in the government's in house review. One way that lack of confidence manifests has been the unwillingness of anyone to take the fracking wastes held in 'temporary' storage ponds since the fracking nearly six years ago.

The Department of Environment has repeatedly assured everyone about the safety of the processing of fracking waste waters that have been in Kennetcook, and now Debert. But those assurances have been rejected by Colchester County and the Town of Windsor, who have refused to have the wastes discharged into their sewage treatment plants.

Coal bed methane extraction is a technology closely associated with shale bed fracking. While there have long been leases in Nova Scotia for exploration, the very first that was heard about actual plans was in a news release from the new provincial government early in November.  

Natural gas exploration in Pictou County is getting underway, under strict regulations from the departments of Energy and Environment.

“East Coast Energy has all of the necessary permits in place to begin exploring for local and cleaner sources of natural gas,” said Energy Minister Andrew Younger. 

The permits do not allow the use of hydraulic fracturing.

East Coast Ventures went to even greater lengths to distance their project from fracking.

It's not fracking.” But coal bed methane extraction produces waste water in similar volumes, and with the same potential for “naturally occuring” toxins- the same toxins whose presence in the Kennetcook fracking wastes has produced the impasse that has stranded them in 'temporary' waste ponds.

Not fracking.” But one of the major reasons the former NDP government took its internal review of hydraulic fracturing out of the hands of the Departments of Energy and Environment, was precisely because of that broad vote of no confidence in Environment's assurances of the safety of the fracking waste processing they had approved.

Not fracking.” But the Environment Department approvals for the Pictou County coal bed methane extraction use the regulatory protocols it has developed for hydraulic fracturing waste water.

Not fracking.” But the early indications are that leakage from producing wells is even more prevalent with coal bed methane extraction than it is for shale gas fracking. Routine leakages contribute substantially to global climate change, and to local airborne pollution of volatile organic chemicals. Bland assurances from industry and government about the steel and concrete casings “sealing off” well bores have to be stacked up against data for the incidence of well casing failures.

Its not fracking,” says our new Liberal government. But the much shallower depths of coal bed methane extraction poses even more risk of pollution of groundwater aquifers than does shale gas fracking.

Not fracking.” But the intensity of the industrial infrastructure for coal bed methane extraction is the same as it is for shale gas fracking: wells counted in the hundreds, on pads a kilometre apart; and all the tanks, pipelines, access roads and compressor stations.

Not fracking.” But Environment's own study describes in detail the same concerns with coal bed methane extraction waste water as there are with shale gas fracking.

Not fracking.” But the industry, it's enthusiastic promoters in the Energy Department, and the enablers in the Environment Department have learned their lessons from the public outcry over fracking in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland. They have kept the extended planning and approval of this coal bed methane project completely under wraps until the drill site was fully constructed and only lacked the imminent arrival of the drill rig.

Not fracking.” Fingers crossed: no fracking in these first wells at least. Small matter that in a producing coal bed methane field, some of the wells have to be hydraulically fractured. So why was consideration of this project by government not tabled, pending the outcome of the province's review of hydraulic fracturing?

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Topics: Environment
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"Not Fracking." Where have we heard that before ...

"In its statement of defence, Calgary-based Encana Corporation denies that it contaminated the drinking water well of Jessica Ernst, a scientist and oil patch consultant, and that it 'complied with or exceeded the requirements of all relevant laws, directives and regulations in respect of its coal bed methane.'

The short, six-page defence claims that the company, a struggling shale gas pioneer, did not frack shallow coal bed methane seams around Rosebud, Alberta, but instead 'stimulated' them with nitrogen gas at high pressure."
"If the First Rule of Frack Club is to not talk about Frack Club, the 2nd rule is to deny you’re a fracker. When someone takes them to court for fracking their water supply – say they’re 'stimulators' It sounds better."

"In 2004, Encana fractured directly into the drinking water aquifers at Rosebud: 'The top perforation was stimulated with 3,000 m3 [3,000,000 litres] of nitrogen (at standard temperature and pressure) at a rate of 500 m3/min [500,000 litres/min] for six minutes. The top set of perforations in this CBM well (125.5 to 126.4 mKb) was in the Weaver coal zone, the same as many of the local water wells ...' ”


Jessica Ernst, of course, is not the only one affected:

"... As for fracing in the Horseshoe Canyon, says Knull, 'we just use nitrogen.' He grabbed the air with his hand as if to tear the element from oxygen and bring it into view. 'Nitrogen is in the air we breathe,' he said.

... 'If I were working for EnCana right now, I could not talk to you about this,' said Gerritsen. 'So I quit.' In 2004, Gerritsen was under contract to EnCana when the water problems began at Kenney’s farm. During his contract, a consulting firm, Hydrogeological Consultants Ltd. (HCL) was hired by EnCana to investigate the Kenney water problems and write a report.

'At Sean's (Kenney), we drilled a new well and they used that for testing ... the foam coming out of Sean's well - the foam he said looked exactly like beer in a mug - they threw it out. There was one test they did that they threw out because the nitrogen level was 30 percent. They said it was contaminated from the air.'

... In January 2005, the consulting firm concluded that the silt in Kenney’s new water well was related to 'inappropriate design.' The high levels of nitrogen found in the water 'did not appear to be a result of the stimulation of the 05-14 Gas Well.' Or in plain language:

The nitrogen is a freak occurrence, and the dirty water is the water-well driller’s fault. The report dismissed the possibility that nitrogen used in the shallow gas-well fractures had migrated into the groundwater, along with anything else that might have been in the gas well.

'I was quite upset about this,' said Gerritsen. 'I had a meeting with EnCana and I said I’m done, I don’t want you to call me. I said I knew what they did up in the hills.'

... Six months before the report was printed, EnCana’s testing of the 05-14 Gas Well revealed nitrogen levels as high as almost 30 percent.

While this information was available, it’s not in the HCL report. Instead of comparing the high nitrogen levels in the Kenney well to that in the 05-14 Gas Well, the report compares Kenney’s water with other gas wells up to twenty-seven kilometres away with low levels of nitrogen.

The report found the nitrogen in the Kenney water couldn’t have come from a gas well because gas in the general area doesn’t have high levels of nitrogen. Gerritsen leaned over the table. 'The concern now is chemicals possibly in the water,' he said. 'Certain things at Redland—I thought, why didn’t they check for this? Why didn’t they check for methane levels right away? Nitrogen levels? But they didn’t check for hydrocarbons at any time.'"



"The Alberta Research Council reported that natural methane release in Alberta is rare because reservoirs are 'tight' and that nitrogen used in coalbed methane (CBM) recovery 'increases diffusion rate of hydrocarbon gases from coal matrix into natural fractures.'"


"Trident Exploration presented in 2009 that their CBM in Alberta is 'unable to produce on perforation alone' so each seam is fractured with high rate nitrogen."





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