Finding climate hope in an age of offhand miracles
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“We’re not against oil and gas.”
This is one of the first things Evanthia and Rose tell me when we first get on the phone to talk about fracking near their homes outside of Rocky Mountain House, Alta.
Then they tell me again when photographer Amber Bracken and I arrive at Evanthia’s house. And again as we snack on crackers and cheese at her dining-room table, while poring over documents they’ve saved over the past year.
“Oil and gas is part of Alberta,” Rose says, Evanthia nodding in agreement — her husband worked in oil and gas for 45 years. Rose’s son works in the industry, as do many of their friends and neighbours. Both have asked their surnames not be used in this article.
“We’re not against oil and gas,” they reiterate, yet again. “We’re just against them taking our fresh water.”
And lately, they’ve found that the fresh water they depend on is under threat.
Evanthia and Rose have recently learned that a global energy company, Repsol, plans to extract 1.8 billion litres of water (enough drinking water for 2.5 million people for a year) annually for fracking from the Clearwater River — a river they already worry is running low — and they say they’re not going to just stand by and watch.
Repsol’s application was approved by the Alberta Energy Regulator last week.
The Clearwater is a tributary for the North Saskatchewan River, which is the sole source of drinking water for the City of Edmonton.
“It’s the drinking water for the Prairies,” they say.
Evanthia isn’t sure exactly how she first heard the news.
It was just chit chat at first. Someone who works in the oil patch told his wife, she thinks, who told Evanthia’s daughter, Nicole — maybe when they were at the hair salon. She’s not sure. It’s the nature of the way news travels in a small community. But then Nicole told her mom, and the news hit Evanthia right in the chest.
Word was that Repsol, headquartered in Spain, was going to start pulling nearly two billion litres of water out of the Clearwater River each year, a river Evanthia had looked at from her kitchen window for the last 45 years.
She immediately got on the phone with her neighbour, Rose, who lives just down the road.
Rose knew all too well about the impacts of oil and gas activity in the area, ever since she came home from her job as a school secretary one night nine years ago, at Christmastime, and found her house vibrating.
“I came home one night and the windows were shaking,” she says.
She called the emergency number of the company she knew was directional drilling nearby, and they put her up in a motel in nearby Rocky Mountain House for the night.
She smiles when she remembers the $20 gift card to Tim Horton’s she was given for her troubles.
“We bought this property to live in peace,” Evanthia says.
“But now we’re right in the middle of an industrial development.”
“We bought this property to live in peace. But now we’re right in the middle of an industrial development.” — Evanthia, Clearwater County resident
Rose and Evanthia are concerned about the future of the Clearwater River, as Repsol pushes ahead with its plans.
Freshwater used for fracking is injected deep into the ground in the place of the oil or gas that is being drilled — and most of it will remain there, forever.
A study funded by Natural Resources Canada found that just 30 per cent of fresh water injected during fracking can be recovered — meaning at least 70 per cent of it remains “trapped in the rock matrix and complex fracture network.”
As another study, published in the journal Science Advances, put it, there is a “permanent loss of water use for hydraulic fracturing from the hydrosphere.”
Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry at Duke University in North Carolina, and an author on the Science Advances study, told The Narwhal that some of their research has found that more than 90 per cent of the water injected during fracking was retained within the rock formations deep beneath the surface.
This is what is so concerning to residents. The water is being taken out of the river, yes, but much of it is also being taken out of the hydrologic cycle — forever.
Anthony Ingraffea, professor emeritus of engineering at Cornell University and former industry consultant — and “expert flyfisher person,” he added, laughing — doesn’t like the term “fracking.”
“When an operator like Repsol wants to produce hydrocarbons from a shale resource, the shale resource is already fractured,” he told The Narwhal. “It’s naturally fractured.”
“The whole objective of getting gas out of shale is not to fracture the shale anew — you don’t have to. All you have to do is open, or open wider, all those natural discontinuities,” he said.
“You flood those natural discontinuities with high-pressure liquid, also called fracking fluid.”
That fracking fluid includes large amounts of water, mixed with additives to make the the fluid more “slick.” Overall, Ingraffea estimated 50 to 95 per cent of water remains down in the shale — though that figure varies between regions — in the place of the gas it has disturbed.
“That’s lost to the water cycle,” he said. “It’s going to be down there forever.”
As for the water that does come back to the surface, it’s markedly different from the water extracted from the Clearwater River.
Water that does return to the surface, known as produced or flowback water, is contaminated with fracking fluid and is notoriously expensive to clean up. Produced water can contain a mixture of salts, radioactive elements or hydrocarbons — and, if it gets into drinking water supplies (as it has been known to do), can be hazardous to human health.
“The water that’s injected is not the water that is coming out,” Vengosh told The Narwhal.
“The water that’s injected is not the water that is coming out.” — Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry at Duke University
The water that does return contains “elements like ammonium — which are extremely toxic to aquatic life — some heavy metals, and radioactivity,” Vengosh said.
“It’s all naturally occurring, but once it’s coming out,” he added, “it poses risks to people who could be exposed to it.”
“That which returns is no longer water,” Ingraffea told The Narwhal. “It’s water-based.”
“The stuff that went down might have come from the Clearwater River,” he added. “What does come back up is not drinkable. It’s not usable… unless it’s processed. Much of what comes back up is not reused. It’s injected into disposal wells, where once again it becomes outside the water cycle.”
As fracking increases in Alberta and across the continent, Ingraffea says it’s important to think beyond the local level.
“It’s certainly going to be impacting local water sources,” he adds. “But to what degree is it impacting the planet?”
He points to climate change as an important factor to consider as governments decide how much water is allocated to consumptive use for fracking.
“One of the impacts of climate change is increased probability of extreme droughts and extreme floods — extreme manifestations of the hydrologic water cycle.”
“And here we are messing around with it.”
Last year, 199 wells were fracked in Clearwater County, according to the fracking monitoring site FracFocus. (The Alberta Energy Regulator confirmed this figure).
An analysis by The Narwhal found that those 199 wells used approximately 1.6 billion litres of water — enough to fill more than 600 Olympic sized swimming pools.
Repsol was a relatively small player on the scene last year — fracking only four wells. But the company’s plans indicate it will drill 280 more wells, using an estimated 75 million litres of water per well, a year’s worth of drinking water for 100,000 people.
Researchers have found that water use in fracking operations is increasing. A study in the U.S. found that the water use per fracked well (in major shale gas and oil producing regions) increased by 770 per cent between 2011 to 2016.
Repsol’s application requested permission to use up to 1.8 billion litres annually of “high-quality non-saline water for 10 years from the Clearwater River to be consumptively used to support [Resol]’s hydraulic fracturing and related activities.”
In short, the company plans to withdraw more water for fracking than all other fracked wells in the county currently use — combined. (Repsol did not respond to The Narwhal’s requests for comment.)
In its application, Repsol acknowledged that alternatives were available, but noted it had decided against them.
“[M}any alternative water sources, such as recycled municipal effluent or industrial wastewater… were found to be not economically feasible,” the company wrote.
“[A]mple water is still available for future development in the area,” Repsol concluded.
Writing by e-mail, a representative for Alberta Environment and Parks noted that “water diversion licences are granted to applicants when sufficient water is available to meet both ecosystem requirements and the rights of existing licence holders.”
Rose and Evanthia aren’t convinced.
As soon as Evanthia and Rose found out about Repsol’s plans, they knew they had to do something. “We just had to let people know,” Evanthia said. “They weren’t forthright with us.”
According to Evanthia, she and her fellow community members were never notified about the decision to allow Repsol to withdraw water because they weren’t considered direct stakeholders. (The regulator posts public notices on its website for 30 days but does not otherwise contact residents.)
So if Repsol wasn’t going to tell the neighbours, Evanthia and Rose were.
The pair, aged 69 and 62, starting knocking on doors. They estimate they talked to 100 of their neighbours over a couple of weekends, and they began to dream of a bigger coalition.
The group met with resistance from many, of course. Oil and gas companies are oft perceived as the lifeblood of much of rural Alberta — and companies like Repsol have been pulling out all the stops to maintain a good public image.
Repsol has been working hard to earn the trust of the communities it works in.
The company gives money to the Dovercourt community hall, which Repsol says enables the community to host “weekly bingo and cowboy church services.”
In Edson, Repsol even sponsored free curling lessons from Olympic gold medallist Kevin Koe.
“Every week they’re in the paper, donating to this school, and the library, the water park… it just goes on and on,” Evanthia says.
And then there are the freebies. At a community barbecue put on by the company, Repsol handed out hats, t-shirts and packages of flower seeds — and rubber ducks emblazoned with its logo, according to people in attendance.
Some residents see this as a respectable community effort, but others see it as an attempt to buy social licence for extractive projects — and they’re not having it.
Eventually, Evanthia and Rose began to form plans for a coalition of sorts.
Helge Nome, 76 — a self-described activist who recently joined the Yellow Vest movement — was quick to join them. “We have diverse political beliefs,” he tells The Narwhal. “But the water unites us.”
The group has organized meetings, submitted statements of concern about Repsol’s plans, contacted company and government representatives and, generally, just tried to stay afloat of the plans for the river in their backyard.
And the more they’ve learned, the more they say they’ve become concerned about the water use of oil and gas companies across the province.
“We complain about the oil and gas companies,” Nome says. “But really the problem is at a different level — it’s at a political level.”
“Companies will do whatever they know they can get away with.”
Brenda McKenzie, a local school teacher who rides a Harley, also joined the group. “I never said I was against oil,” she says. “I just know we can’t live without fresh water.”
She’s upset that the regulator compares water used for fracking to water used for other allocations.
The Alberta Energy Regulator told The Narwhal by e-mail that “10 per cent of all nonsaline water in Alberta is allocated to energy development. The remaining 90 per cent is allocated for other uses, such as agriculture, forestry, commercial (e.g., golf courses, gravel pit operations), and municipalities.”
McKenzie is quick to point out that water used for fracking is disappearing from the hydrologic cycle, unlike water used for irrigation, golf courses or showers.
“The freshwater they use is never to be used again for human consumption.”
According to the Alberta Energy Regulator, “to-date, over 180,000 wells in Alberta have been completed using hydraulic fracturing.” The number of wells has been on the rise in recent years — between 2013 and 2018, the number of fracked wells increased by nine per cent.
Each of these new wells uses fresh water.
“Recycling… is the only possibly future,” Vengosh, the professor of geochemistry, told The Narwhal — noting that it’s especially important in areas where there are water scarcity issues. “Using alternative water sources is the key.”
But Repsol’s application emphasized the availability of fresh water in Clearwater County, writing there is a “large volume of water available for allocation,” and “ample water is still available for future development in the area.”
The Alberta Energy Regulator declined The Narwhal’s request for an interview, but provided answers to questions sent by e-mail, in which it acknowledged the consumptive nature of water used for fracking.
“Water used for hydraulic fracturing operations in Alberta cannot be returned to the hydrologic cycle,” wrote James Mottershead, spokesperson for the regulator.
“Once water is used for this purpose, it is considered oilfield waste… This type of oilfield waste may be recycled and reused in other hydraulic fracturing operations, or be disposed of through an AER-approved deep disposal well.”
There is currently no requirement to recycle water used in fracking in Alberta.
“The [regulator] encourages companies to use alternative water sources, like recycled water, wherever possible. The amount of water that can be recycled varies greatly between projects,” Mottershead wrote.
“Economic costs must be balanced against environmental impacts and the benefits of water conservation efforts.”
In response to the group’s statement of concern, the regulator downplayed the impact of the water withdrawal. “The [regulator’s] hydrogeologist has no concerns with the proposed diversion,” it wrote, adding that it found minimal risks to local aquatic life and water wells.
“The [regulator] carefully evaluates each Water Act licence application to ensure it meets all requirements and will not adversely affect the environment or other existing users,” Mottershead wrote to The Narwhal.
Despite the regulator’s decision, the group remains concerned about the impacts of consumptive water use of this scale. And they’re still trying to figure out what their next steps will be.
While they’re talking, Evanthia gets a bit emotional. “You can see what they’re doing,” she says, frustrated. “But we can’t do anything about it.”
Nome interjects. “Yes we can,” he says.
“It’s time for people like us — residents — to really wave the red flag,” he adds.
McKenzie echoes his sentiment. She’s sure that Albertans will care if they understand what’s being planned. “That’s why I’m here,” she says.
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