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'Tight Gas', 'Tight Sands' and 'Fracking Light'

Terms to know pre-Wheeler road show

by Miles Howe

Ken Summers of NOFRAC wants you to get familiar with a few new terms [Photo: A. Giles]
Ken Summers of NOFRAC wants you to get familiar with a few new terms [Photo: A. Giles]

K'jipuktuk (HALIFAX) - David Wheeler, chair of the independent Nova Scotia Hydraulic Fracturing Review, is slated for a cross-province road show starting in mid-July. The Review has produced several discussion papers to date, each of which will provide the backbone of a chapter in the final deliverable. The chapters on environmental impact, socioeconomic effects, water resources and health impacts do concede that hydraulic fracturing does present a 'wicked problem' of which little to nothing is known of the long term impacts.

However, there is still the presented potential of the economic benefits of onshore oil and gas development in Nova Scotia.

Likely, the benefits, from a purely extractive potential – eschewing for the sake of over-simplification all the added costs of road work, poisoned wells, etc. - will be small. Geologically, it does not appear that basins in Nova Scotia correlate to the much vaunted and fracked Marcellus shale, which has turned farmers into millionaires and citizens into radical environmental activists in Pennsylvania.

To read Wheeler, Nova Scotia has one area of real interest; the Kennetcook-Windsor basin. Geologically it is similar to the proven Moncton basin on which sits the McCully gas field in Southern New Brunswick.

Ken Summers, a resident of Noel, Nova Scotia and a member of the Nova Scotia Fracking Resource and Action Coalition (NOFRAC), worries that the upcoming Wheeler report might just try and float the balloon of 'fracking light', a term that for the moment is a catch-all for any unconventional extractive methods that do hydraulically fracture, but that might not be as water intensive as fracking a typical shale bed.

“The biggest public attention goes to shale gas fracking, and that's for good reasons,” says Summers. “That what the focus of the industry is. That's what's gone on in Pennsylvania, where we're now into the thousands of wells. That's where all the controversy has been around and that's what our current review is in practice focused on.

“But hydraulic fracturing was first used in smaller volumes on geological formations that were not as hard to get at as the shale beds (of the Marcellus shale variety that SWN Resources Canada hopes to find in New Brunswick, for example). But they're still formations where conventional drilling won't work. In these formations the fracking is done in much smaller volumes than it is in shale beds. But the hydraulic fracturing in these formations has in some cases even more risks. The volumes are smaller, but it's carried out in conditions where contaminations might more easily reach the surface and our groundwater.”

What raises Summers' suspicions – and concerns – is that the geological formations of the Moncton basin, in which sits the McCully field in Sussex County, New Brunswick and the Kennetcook-Windsor basin of Nova Scotia, are relatively similar. Both are made up of 'Horton' type sandstones or bluffs and contain in industry-speak what is known as 'Tight Gas'.

“Those formations are what we call 'tight sands', or sandstone, which is the stuff you see on the cliffs around the Noel shore,” says Summers. “Tight sandstones are much more compressed, kind of like shale beds, just not quite as hard. But the gas doesn't flow out of it freely. So when they go down to it, they need to do hydraulic fracturing.”

Being that the Wheeler review has only provided much real concrete estimates on natural gas potentials in the Kennetcook-Windsor basin (based on seismic testing done in the mid-2000s, before anyone knew what fracking really was, says Summers) it is likely that this will be 'ground zero' of any attempts to frack Nova Scotia.

If Wheeler's upcoming presentations across Nova Scotia are long on references to 'Tight Gas' and 'tight sands', it may be an attempted switch-e-roo to unfamiliar – and potentially confusing – language and should confirm industry's real interest – the Kennetcook-Windsor basin.

To be sure, the McCully field in New Brunswick is no cakewalk.

The town of Penobsquis, for example, presents in living example the myriad environmental and socioeconomic problems referenced in earlier Wheeler discussion papers. These include dry wells and a town now hooked up to municipal water, sinking streets and houses, as well as various medical ailments afflicting in particular the lungs and skin of people and their livestock and pets.

Of course, as is almost inevitably the case, none of these symptoms can with any certainty be attributed to either the fossil fuel industry or the present potash industry, and thus gets blamed on neither. Instead it is coincidence or something to do with naturally occurring flood plains.

Interestingly, what allows the plight of Penobsquis – and the McCully field in general – to largely escape the public eye is the geology of the region itself and the 'fracking light' that takes place, often with propane rather than water.

The potential of broken and poisoned aquifers and the health effects of escaping methane from well bores of course do still exist. But industry gets to wash its hands of the public damnation of intensive water usage in 'conventional' hydraulic fracturing, and so a relative blind eye is turned to the effected region and the 'fracking light' process.

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Tight Sands and the Wheeler Review

Before David Wheeler appointed his panel for the Review, he appointed three people to the Review's key positions. Two of those three are industry people. And it is industry people who wrote the first paper on "the extent of the resource."

The possibility that 'tight sands' could be developed in Nova Scotia was not introduced by that paper. But it has been little discussed before. The attention of the industry, and supporting it the Department of Energy, has been on shale gas fracking. But getting an end to the moratorium is not going to be a slam dunk.

"Fracking light" does not attract nearly so much attention, and being allowed to do it on a "test basis" would allow the industry to stay in the game here.

Industry and government in New Brunswick use the tight sands gas extraction that has been developing there for more than a decade as one of the wedges for trying to fully open the door on shale gas fracking.

The Wheeler Review is billed as being "evidence based". Some of the discussion papers have met high standards, but that is optional. Several of the papers have been unabashed expression of expert opinion, without even the qualification of the range of expert opinion that exists.

The stage has been set that if the Review Panel is not going to recommend that the government end the moratorium on shale gas fracking, the industry could get it's 'half a loaf' of a recommendation that the government might "consider" more limited forms of hydraulic fracturing, on a 'test basis'. As with tight sands, exploring for coal bed methane does not require the use of hydraulic fracturing. But the development of a producing field of many wells is not feasible for either without fracking. Currently, for the coal bed methane test wells in Pictou county, fracking is not allowed.

Fracking tight sands may actually pose even more risks than does fracking shale gas- for one thing because of the shallower depths. And the tight sands in Nova Scotia are at far shallower depths than are the comparable New Brunswick geological structures.

Not once in any of the Review papers has there been discussion of the risks of fracking tight sands, or the experience with it in New Brunswick. But the structure of the Wheeler Review would regardless allow a 'suggestion' for 'considering' it to be dropped in to the recommendations for government at the very end of the Review process.

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