The following testimony was given during hearings held in Calgary in early December, 2011. The witness was an oil industry representative but I thought he gave a very good layperson's summary of what was involved in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and what was the difference between best practices and poor practices with this technology.
The hearing are part of the Committee's study on Energy Planning for Canada. The full testimony will eventually appear here. Those interested might also want to look at the committee's interim report Attention Canada!
Testimony to Senate Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee, December 2011
Robert Spitzer, Chair and Vice President, New Ventures, Apache Canada, Horn River Basin Producers Group: From an environmental standpoint, obviously associated with this technology, and I will explain the technology here in the next line, we have done a number of things that I think are innovative that basically appeal to the concerns about the environment. And the process uses a lot of water and we work with Geoscience B.C., who are, I think, following me on this panel, to work on non‑potable water sources instead of surface water sources. We built a water plant that uses non‑potable water from depth. We have used seismic, that is innovative versus the traditional method, and I will expand on these. And we have reduced the surface footprint.
So if we just turn the page, I will just talk about this just for one minute, because fundamentally this is what has revolutionized oil and gas exploration and development in North America and probably the world. And this is this idea of hydraulic fracturing, multistage hydraulic fracturing.
So what you do is you marry two technologies. You can drill horizontal wells and that is what this picture shows. You drill down vertically and then drill out horizontally. And you can drill out horizontally quite some distance, in many instances three or four kilometres. That technology has been in existence for about 60 years.
And the hydraulic fracturing is basically this, that the rock is so dense and tight that the gas molecules cannot find their way to the wellbore in an economic manner. And so what was basically invented about 15 years ago is hydraulic fracturing which breaks the rock which allows the molecules to move into the wellbore and be produced on an economic scale.
And so we, as an industry, have really perfected this in the last 15 years. It is what has caused a lot of gas to be available in North America in the last five to ten years, whereas before there was deemed to be a shortage of gas. Now there is probably a surplus of gas and it is not a small one.
Senator McCoy: Mr. Spitzer, I have not heard this discussed or described as neatly as you are doing, and perhaps you could take it one step further for me.
Mr. Spitzer: Sure.
Senator McCoy: I see all these little red lines, hydraulic fracturing.
Mr. Spitzer: Right.
Senator McCoy: Exactly what is that? I mean it is not TNT. It is not an explosion.
Mr. Spitzer: No. It is a 60 year old process. And what you do is you basically pump water with some chemicals into the ground under high pressure and that pressure breaks the rock like a pane of glass.
Senator McCoy: And that goes down outside?
Mr. Spitzer: On the diagram, it goes down that central tube under pressure and that pressure breaks the rock. That is fundamentally what it does. It breaks the rock. If you visualize this, it is like having gas molecules down here and until you break the rock, the gas molecules cannot get to the wellbore.
Senator McCoy: I have got that part.
Mr. Spitzer: Yes.
Senator McCoy: So now you have got the water, it has broken up the shale.
Mr. Spitzer: Right.
Senator McCoy: What happens to the water?
Mr. Spitzer: Well, what happens is then you basically produce that well and so what comes back is a lot of the water that you stuck in, that comes back first, and then the gas follows, right.
And so a lot of the stuff you hear about hydraulic fracturing and the concerns around it are water usage because it uses a fair bit of water, there is no question, and some of the chemistry that is involved in addition to the water. And so when you read about hydraulic fracturing and some of the worries, those are the two big worries, use of surface water and the chemicals in the water.
The Chair: Methane.
Mr. Spitzer: Methane is the product, right. So you are producing methane. With this water, which constitutes usually about 99 per cent of the fluid, you have to add some chemicals to reduce friction, for example, so that the water can move down the pipe easier without causing a lot of friction loss.
Senator McCoy: Soapy water.
Mr. Spitzer: Yes, exactly.
The wellbore here is described as about 8,000 deep. It is usually quite deep. There has been issues in the past in the U.S. is where these wellbores are not that much deeper than the surface water and the wells and so there is issues associated with that in some cases because of bad practice. But by and large, there is easily a mile of rock between where people are drawing their well water and where this activity is happening.
On the right‑hand side of this picture, we shoot what is called micro‑seismic image where those breaks in the rock occur. And you can see the colour scheme here is basically each individual frac is monitored. And most of them have no further height growth, almost all of them, than a hundred metres. So if you are 8,000 metres below the ground and these have open cracks of 100 metres then safety is really not an issue.
I could talk about this for the rest of the meeting but I better not because I want to move on, but I am available when there are questions obviously.
On the water management side because these hydraulic fractures use a fair amount of water, we recognized early on that we have to think of some creative solutions to sourcing the water. Since a lot of the water in Horn River is surface water, is there anything else we can do to better understand surface water, A; and, B, if there are any other potential sources that we could use.
We formed a partnership with Geoscience BC to monitor surface water, to understand groundwater, both non‑saline and saline, and to also work with other producers on recycling some of this water that we produce back, put it in a tank and then produce it and use again.
So there is a number of initiatives that were taken fairly early on to solve some of those concerns. One of them is the Debolt Water Facility. So this is a big facility that constitutes the left‑hand side of the page on this diagram. It fundamentally does this, instead of draining surface water, we basically found a saline water source 3,000 feet below surface. And so instead of taking that surface water, we use this saline non‑potable source, put it through the plant and use it for our fracturing. And so at the end of the day, there is no water that is drawn from surface in this immediate area.
It is a $100 million plant. It is the only one of its kind in the world. This was the prototype. And I think at the end of the day, it shows that if we put our minds to it, we can do something that is actually beneficial for everyone.
First Nations and other residents up there do not have to worry about water being drawn from surface, which is a good thing, because that was their concern. And from an industry standpoint, we have got around that by drawing water that is saline from 3,000 feet down. And it actually ends up being cheaper than drawing it from surface. So it is real good story of the classic win‑win situation. But without having a conversation with locals and us putting on our creative thinking caps, it would not have happened because it has not happened anywhere else.
Another example is Well Pad Drilling Operations, reducing the footprint. So instead of clearing an area and drilling one well and then doing it 400 metres next door, we end up drilling in one pad 16 wells from surface, so we clear one pad and we will drill 16 wells literally 10 feet from each other, drill the vertical well and then drill horizontally out three kilometres or more so that most of the work that is done is done in the subsurface and not at surface in a traditional sense.
The surface disturbance is dramatically minimized by drilling these pads and only clearing one lease as opposed to potentially 16 leases that historically could have occurred. So it is a big deal.
With regard to low impact seismic lines, this is a photo from Horn River and in this we shoot seismic to basically better image the subsurface so that we know how deep to drill our wells and how long we drill the horizontals.
Senator Neufeld: Thank you, and thank you for being here, Rob. It is great to hear from you and I appreciate your words.
At least what I get from people asking me a lot of questions about how you do not pollute the groundwater, and I know you went through that process a bit, but tell me, is there always ‑‑ I think you said a thousand feet of impermeable rock below surface, below the water table where people will probably get their drinking water from aquifers before you get down to where you are working in the Horn River Basin or Alberta or anything like that, is that always there? Explain that a little bit.
Mr. Spitzer: Yes. I think the important thing here is this, and it is real important, it is certainly not in the industry's or anybody else's interest for us to be fracking and causing problems, that is not in our interest. So there are certainly regulations and best practices that defend against that outcome. And so if you look at it, we generally do not frac within 3,000 feet of a water well. We know where the fresh water resides and generally we are much, much deeper than that and in many cases, a mile and a half deeper than that.
There are cases in the U.S. where companies have not followed the regulations, just like there is in any industry. What is a concern and was a concern when we actually formed the Producers Group is that we wanted to make sure that as much as possible we encouraged the best practices to be shared because it just takes one bad seed to taint everything.
To answer the question, we make sure that there is a very large buffer. The government makes sure there is a large buffer. We measure where the fracs go. And on a continual basis, there is a lot of effort on working on frac fluid composition and making it greener through time as well. So I hope that helps explain it.
Senator Neufeld: Has there been in British Columbia, or I will use Alberta as a neighbouring province, a problem with that happening where the industry has polluted potable water?
Mr. Spitzer: I do not think there is one example where it has been definitively shown ever.
Senator Neufeld: All right.
Mr. Spitzer: Certainly not with shale gas.
Senator Banks: We heard earlier today that it is B.C.'s plan to make public all of the component parts, the ingredients that are in fracking substances that are used. Your group is concurrent with that?
Mr. Spitzer: Oh, absolutely.
Senator Banks: Is nobody concerned about proprietary interests in this?
Mr. Spitzer: Well, there has been a bit of a row in the U.S. over that because at the end of the day the service providers have said that they have got secret recipes that they cannot divulge. Fundamentally, we have all agreed to basically divulging the information.
Senator Banks: Period?
Mr. Spitzer: Yes.
Senator Banks: Unrestricted, including the secret, my fracking fluid is better than your fracking fluid and I do not want you to know about my advantage but I am going to tell you anyway?
Mr. Spitzer: There is disclosure that is required. B.C. requires disclosure. And so the companies have said, okay, through this what is called a frac focus which is the software by which you can compile this data, companies have said yes, they will do that.
Ms. Poole‑Moffatt: And we are doing it in the U.S.
Mr. Spitzer: Yes. I think now with the scrutiny, and it is the right thing to do, most people, most companies, if not all, disclose on what is called MSDS sheets what the chemical constituents are of the frac fluid.
Senator Banks: Is there any worry about that being a disincentive to research? I mean research in the oil and gas industry is largely driven by trying to gain advantages over your competitors.
Mr. Spitzer: Well, I am not so sure all the exact concentrations and so on. It is a list of chemicals that is required for disclosure. I am not sure it is exactly all the concentrations as such. We have come a long way from what it was years ago.