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Fracking Waste Water Redux: it's even worse in New Brunswick

Penobsquis residents hung out to dry

by Ken Summers

One of the wells fracked by Corridor in September 2014. Where did the waste water go?
One of the wells fracked by Corridor in September 2014. Where did the waste water go?

Even an occasional look at the Nova Scotia fracking waste water saga probably familiarises a person with the name Atlantic Industrial Services.

The story begins eight years ago with Triangle Petroleum drilling the shale gas exploration wells in Kennetcook, and that company is still responsible for the two waste storage ponds in the community.

But AIS is the active protagonist in this winding saga, processing some of the waste water at it's Debert facility, and setting in motion a sort of serial controversy as it shops around Nova Scotia the attempt to find a final home for the waste water.

While the association of AIS with fracking waste water is very strong in Nova Scotia, the company has an older relationship with Corridor Resources- quietly carrying away for years fracking waste water from the over 30 gas wells in Penobsquis, New Brunswick. In a night and day contrast with the Nova Scotia situation, this has unfolded with virtually no public scrutiny of what Corridor and AIS are doing with the fracking waste water.

Neither has there been any evidence of regulatory oversight in New Brunswick. This appears to continue with the recent Corridor drilling and fracking program in the Penobsquis McCully Gas Field, despite the fact that the now departed Alward government brought in the much trumpeted 2013 Rules for Industry with substantially raised requirements for fracking waste water handling.

The McCully Field produces gas from “tight sands” rather from shale. A good rule of thumb for understanding the difference is that there is no extraction at all of gas or oil from shale rock without hydraulic fracturing- and “high volume hydraulic fracturing” at that. Extracting gas from tight sands is still not your grandmother's conventional oil and gas extraction. But the rock formations do not hold the gas as tightly as gas is trapped in shale formations.

Typical of other tight sands fields, some gas can be extracted with strictly conventional methods. But hydraulic fracturing still comes into play with virtually every tight sands well; and quite simply, you cannot have a producing tight sands field without hydraulic fracturing.

Hydraulic fracturing in tight sands does take place at lower pressures and with smaller volumes- typically under half a million litres for a gas well treatment, versus 5 million litres for the shale gas exploration wells in Nova Scotia, and 20 million litres or more for a full scale horizontal drilled and fracked producing well.

But the lower volumes per well used in the Pennobsquis hydraulic fracturing add up over the course of over 100 frac treatments.

In fact, at least 11 million litres of fracking waste water were trucked by AIS to Nova Scotia and discharged untreated, first in the Windsor Sewage Treatment Plant in 2010 and 2011, and then into the Debert Sewage Treatment Plant from the AIS facility. Thanks in good part to the laxity of the Nova Scotia Department of Environment, Windsor Town Council was not really aware of what they were getting into. And the Colchester County Council never knew about the Debert discharges at the time they happened.

Far more of Corridor's waste water than that 11 million trucked to Nova Scotia has been dumped untreated in places unknown within New Brunswick. By comparison, the current controversy without an apparent resolution in Nova Scotia, is over discharging fracking waste water that has at least been treated.

While it has not yet been conclusively established, it appears that fracking waste water from the Corridor operations is still being dumped untreated somewhere in New Brunswick. If so, this is in direct violation of the government's featured requirements for hydraulic fracturing waste water handling in the new Rules for Industry.

Unconventional oil and gas wells deplete very rapidly. This means a field like Corridor needs new wells drilled, and successive frac treatments to existing gas wells, just to maintain production levels. After several years of being marginalised by it's thin cash flow, Corridor was able to invest a one time windfall in a multiple well drilling and fracking program last summer and fall.

The Environmental Impact Assessment for that program echoed the 2013 New Brunswick Rules for Industry. The EIA does some unwarranted minimizing of the amount of waste water entailed with the “gas fracking” that Corridor now uses. But since there is still a significant amount of waste water, it does specify that

"Produced wastewater will be sampled and analyzed in accordance with the Corridor Waste Management Plan and in compliance with the Rules for Industry prior to being removed from the site by a third party waste management company for disposal at a licensed treatment facility."

The Rules for Industry brought in by the Alward government were touted as the most rigorous on the continent, even though they were predominately built on “regulations” that the government only might require. One of the notable, and featured, exceptions was the unequivocal nature of the waste water handling requirements.

At the time of the drafting of the Rules, it was assumed that in practice the “licensed treatment facility” would be AIS Debert. Overlooked was the sketchy manner that facility became “licensed.” But good enough for the Nova Scotia government, the Alward government was willing to take. So when the Rules were written and brought into force, there was a licensed treatment facility available.

At least there was, until the new Liberal Nova Scotia government in September 2013 brought in a ban on the importation of hydraulic fracturing waste water. We now know from New Brunswick's current Energy Minister that the Alward government saw this unexpected lack of a licensed treatment facility as a serious obstacle to it's promotion of shale gas fracking.

So, if the lack of a fracking waste water licensed treatment facility in New Brunswick has been idenitified as a problem by both the pro-fracking Alward government, and it's successor that rode to victory last year on the promise of a hydraulic fracturing moratorium, what has Corridor done with it's fracking waste water? And what is the regulator doing in the way of oversight?

Good questions.

No definite answers yet. But here is what we know.

  • Corridor's program last year saw at least 4 wells hydraulically fractured on four different multi-well pads.

  • Landowners saw AIS waste water hauling trucks at the well sites, during the time that the hydraulic fracturing was taking place.

  • Let alone a “licensed treatment facility” in the province, New Brunswick does not even have a prospective unlicensed treatment facility for fracking waste water. What it has is unknown dumping points where untreated fracking waste water has historically been discharged.

After several days of questioning the Department of Environment over what has happened, the author was a week ago promised that they would provide something on Monday past. That response turned out after the wait to be a laconic “we have received your request for information.”

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