by Nicholas Kusnetz ProPublica, Dec. 28, 2011, 11:09 a.m.
Early last year, deep in the forests of northern British Columbia, workers for Apache Corp. performed what the company proclaimed was the biggest hydraulic fracturing operation ever.
The project used 259 million gallons of water and 50,000 tons of sand to frack 16 gas wells side by side. It was “nearly four times larger than any project of its nature in North America,” Apache boasted.
The record didn’t stand for long. By the end of the year, Apache and its partner, Encana, topped it by half at a neighboring site.
As furious debate over fracking continues in the United States, it is instructive to look at how a similar gas boom is unfolding for our neighbor to the north.
To a large extent, the same themes have emerged as Canada struggles to balance the economic benefits drilling has brought with the reports of water contamination and air pollution that have accompanied them.
The Canadian boom has differed in one regard: The western provinces’ exuberant embrace of large-scale fracking offers a vision of what could happen elsewhere if governments clear away at least some of the regulatory hurdles to growth.
Even as some officials have questioned the wisdom of doing so, Alberta and British Columbia have dueled to draw investment by offering financial incentives and loosening rules. The result has been some of the most intensive drilling anywhere.
“There definitely is concern on the part of people living in northeast B.C. on the scale of developments, which are quite significant already and are only in their infancy,”said Ben Parfitt, an analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a research institute that promotes environmental sustainability. “We are seeing some of the largest fracking operations anywhere on earth.”
Canada’s eastern regions have proceeded more cautiously. In March, Quebec placed a moratorium on shale development  pending further study. Protesters have taken to the streets in New Brunswick  demanding the same.
Public opposition, coupled with low gas prices, has slowed drilling over the past year. Still, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers expects production from shale and other unconventional sources to more than triple in the next decade.
The industry’s aggressive plan for growth has drawn an ambivalent response from the nation’s top environmental officials.
In March, Canada’s deputy minister of the environment sent an internal memo warning that more work was needed to assess the risks from shale gas drilling . The memo, obtained by an Ottawa-based newspaper and addressed to Environment Minister Peter Kent, said water use and contamination top a list of environmental concerns including air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and the use of unknown toxic chemicals. Kent subsequently ordered two studies looking at the safety and environmental impacts of shale drilling.
Yet, in a written response to questions from ProPublica, the environment ministry affirmed its commitment to continued development.
“Our Government believes shale gas is an important strategic resource that could provide numerous economic benefits to Canada,” the ministry’s statement said. Gas is an important part of a clean energy future, the ministry added, saying that “a healthy environment and a strong economy go hand in hand.”
B.C., Alberta Lure Drillers
Canada’s current drilling boom dates to the late 1990s, when Encana began using fracking to extract gas from dense rock in northern British Columbia.
The second-largest gas driller in North America, Encana also started fracking shallow coal seams, or coalbed methane, in Alberta in the early 2000s, using nitrogen rather than water to free the gas. Coalbed methane drilling generally requires less fluid than fracking shale but occurs much closer to drinking water. In some cases, Encana and other companies have drilled wells directly into aquifers, injecting fracking fluids into groundwater suitable for drinking.
In the middle of the last decade, Encana and other operators started exploring northern British Columbia’s shale gas reserves. The formations were promising, holding at least 200 trillion cubic feet of gas, according to industry estimates.
But drillers faced formidable hurdles to get to it. Unlike the Barnett and Marcellus shales in the U.S., Canada’s best shale basins are far from most markets and existing infrastructure. Soggy ground slows drilling in the spring and summer, and the average high temperature hovers around zero degrees Fahrenheit in January.