In an effort to defuse a growing conflict over the copious amounts of fresh water needed to extract shale gas in B.C.'s Peace River region, energy giant EnCana Corp. is turning to the foulest source of H2O it can find.
Buried as deep as one kilometre below the surface, the company discovered an aquifer in which the water is utterly undrinkable. It's as salty as the Pacific Ocean and laced with highly corrosive hydrogen sulphide.
With angry ranchers, farmers and recreational users in the Peace River competing for the fresh water the company was draining from nearby lakes and rivers, EnCana and its partner, Apache Corp., spent nine months and more than $10-million developing a new technique to treat and use the sour water that nobody wanted or could reach.
"As far as we know, nobody has done this in the world," said Mark Taylor, team leader for EnCana's Horn River operations. Now, energy companies are working with Geoscience BC to explore other saline aquifers in the Montenay Shale gas play near Dawson Creek as well.
To date, EnCana has pumped more than 25 million barrels of water out of the Debolt formation – a layer of porous rock, 70 metres thick, far below the surface in the Horn River basin that lies north of Fort Nelson.
Massive pumps draw the water up to treatment tanks where the hydrogen sulphide is reduced to safe levels. "It's deadly and you don't want it in the water when you are pumping it through your equipment on the ground while you have 200 people working on the pad," Mr. Taylor said.
British Columbia is poised to launch a new liquefied natural-gas industry, and the development of the Montenay and Horn River gas plays in the northeast corner of the province are key to that ambition.
But environmentalists are calling for a moratorium on new developments in B.C. until water safety and other health concerns are addressed – a demand the provincial government has dismissed.
Other jurisdictions are more skeptical: Quebec has imposed a partial moratorium, Ottawa is conducting two environmental reviews, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is already well into a major investigation into the potential impacts of fracking on drinking-water resources.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves injecting fluid – water, sand and chemicals – at high pressure to break up shale as deep as 2,000 metres below the surface to release trapped natural-gas deposits.
Mr. Taylor hopes that reducing the industry's need for fresh water will ease tensions in the Peace River, where ranchers have had to cull their herds due to drought while watching fresh water disappear into the fracking process.
"We now have a source of water that is generally viewed as more environmentally friendly than using fresh water. That certainly doesn't hurt in the political climate of shale-gas development," he said. "You end up with enhancing our social licence to operate by having an alternate source of water."
However, critics remain suspicious, saying the Debolt water project is so new and untested, it is impossible to know what the long-term impact may be.
"That has the potential to partially address concerns around water usage, but the government is still pushing a massive ramp-up of fracking without us knowing the cumulative impacts on water or health," said George Heyman of the Sierra Club of B.C. "Let's take a pause and not assume what we have can be expanded ad infinitum."
As the independent MLA for Cariboo North, Bob Simpson has been pushing for a review of fracking. He said the 100,000 barrels of Debolt water extracted every day is just a drop in the bucket.
"What I don't like about this is the suggestion that they are somehow resolving the fresh-water situation. You are talking about a miniscule amount of what the industry is using," he said.
Once it has been used in fracking, the Debolt water is injected back into the ground, into containers made of steel and concrete. But Mr. Simpson said he is still uneasy.
"We don't know the hydrological and geological implications of drawing the saline aquifer down. We may be creating a different kind of problem."