A Rock and a Hard Place, The energy industry calls fracking a game changer by Chris Wood in December 2011 Issue, The Walrus
EAST OF CALGARY, the snow-dusted prairie is the white of the December sky. Dropping into a coulee, the bare two-lane blacktop turns sharply right at the hamlet of Rosebud, and I follow a side street buried under fresh snow before circling to a dead end in front of Jessica Ernst’s house. A shy environmental biologist with long, straight, greying hair, she ushers me in and offers me hand-knitted socks to ward off the floor’s chill. Her living room and kitchen are cluttered with the artifacts of daily life: house keys, small tools, correspondence — lots of correspondence. Several walls hold examples of her one financial indulgence, art. Prominent are works by Marianna Gartner, a Vancouver artist who sets disturbing portraits of pale children — some with tattoos, or skulls for heads — in surreal landscapes that might be dreams or nightmares.
Ernst’s reality has been mostly the latter since early 2005, when she began to suspect something was wrong with her plumbing. Her bathtub faucet whistled loudly, as though air were being forced out of it. Small black grains clogged her kitchen tap. The water in her toilet fizzed as if it were full of Alka-Seltzer. She developed a skin rash so severe that her doctor compared it to industrial burns. In a touch out of Stephen King, her dogs backed away from their water dishes.
Ernst has worked in the oil patch for decades, mainly advising companies on how to lighten their impact on the communities where they operate. She knew that Encana, one of North America’s largest unconventional gas producers, with operations in the US, BC, and Alberta, had been drilling in a coalfield beneath the nearby hills, known as the Horseshoe Canyon Formation. She also knew that her own water well, which had run clean and pure since 1986, drew on parts of that same formation. She conducted a simple test, running tap water into a mug, then lighting a match and waving it beside the lip. A yellow-orange flame spread across the water. For her next homespun experiment, she partly filled a plastic pop bottle with water and tightened the cap. A minute later, holding a lit match near the bottle’s neck, she unscrewed the cap. The bottle exploded, shooting a blue flame like a rocket.
Formal testing identified the mystery fizz in Ernst’s water as methane, with traces of petroleum distillates, BEHP (a possible carcinogen), and heavy metals — all linked to oil and gas activity. At airborne concentrations of between 5 and 15 percent, methane can explode, and in the fall of 2005 she borrowed a methane detector. After the second alarm indicating that gas was building to unsafe levels in her home, she disconnected her well. Two large tanks in the basement now hold water trucked in from Drumheller, twenty-five kilometres away.
Like most Albertans, Ernst has almost no say over gas development adjacent to, beneath, or even directly on her twenty hectares of prairie. In common with most of western Canada and many other parts of the country, title to surface real estate in Alberta generally doesn’t include the gas beneath it. Instead, with some exceptions, that belongs to the Crown, in its provincial or federal capacities. Government owns the gas, sells rights to access the gas, banks the cheque, and deploys its legal weight to guarantee that the companies get what they pay for. Drillers must indemnify landowners for inconvenience caused while accessing their properties, but the owners cannot turn them away. Those who feel under-compensated can take up their cases with a government arbitration board. Everyone else is on his or her own.
Ernst is not the only Alberta resident to protest this arrangement. The libertarian Wildrose Party campaigns on changing the law to restore Albertans’ property rights. Groups such as Water Matters and the Pembina Institute have raised environmental concerns about fracking. But no one is as consumed by the issue as Ernst is. Describing herself as “a business person who’s doing what’s right” rather than as an activist, she writes letters to regulators and elected leaders, circulates fracking news to contacts as far away as India, and has testified before a parliamentary committee studying the environment. This past spring, she made a presentation to the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development in New York.
Her tenacity has cost her. Consulting jobs have all but dried up. One rancher I spoke with declined to be quoted for this article, for fear of being publicly discredited, “like that ‘crazy’ lady in Rosebud.” She has also been called a Canadian Erin Brockovich, the whistle-blower portrayed by Julia Roberts in the 2000 biopic. But compensation for her ruined well has eluded her, along with the admission of responsibility she feels is warranted. Her lawyers have filed suit in the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta, seeking more than $30 million in restitution and damages from Encana, the Energy Resources Conservation Board (an independent, quasi-judicial agency of the Alberta government), and the provincial Crown. (Encana declined to comment on a case before the courts; at press time, neither the company nor the province had filed statements of defence.)
With her feet tucked under her for warmth, Ernst cradles a mug of tea. “I fell in love with Alberta,” she says softly. “I fell in love with that fierce independence.” But the way the provincial government and the gas industry roll over Alberta’s citizens, she says, has been traumatic: “I see this as domestic violence. Albertans are being raped.”
Then there’s the money. Encana, for example, pocketed $1.5 billion in profit last year on $9 billion of revenue. The industry also boosts the broader economy: in 2007, roughly $12.7 billion flowed into Alberta and $2.9 billion into British Columbia….
Napalm no longer seems to be the frackant of choice, although this is difficult to ascertain, because frack constituents have been closely guarded in Canada and in most American states. … Some ingredients, such as tallow soap and crushed nutshells, are benign. Others are pure poison. Diesel fuel has been a common additive, although some companies have sworn off it. … Under mounting pressure, and amid a wave of state-level concessions to greater disclosure in the United States, where even Texas now requires it (and Halliburton provides it), Alberta and British Columbia claim to be working through technical challenges with the aim of publicly releasing the details of frack fluid contents in their jurisdictions. CAPP announced in September that it “will support the disclosure of fracturing fluid additives.”
The possibility that a hard fracking could allow gas or fluid to migrate through the ground is not remote; it’s the point. “If you enhance the permeability of the rock mass, which is the purpose of hydro-fracking,” explains Diana Allen, a groundwater scientist at Simon Fraser University in BC, “it expands existing fractures and opens up new ones. So if you put something into the ground, it’s going to go somewhere else.” … Of course, proving a link between chemicals in a well and chemicals in fracking fluid is made harder when the latter are kept secret. But in any case, frack fluid leaking deep in a drill hole may be the least of the ways the new gas boom makes itself felt. Much greater risks are posed by drilling activity above ground and just beneath it — in the shallow zone where Jessica Ernst’s suit alleges that methane migrated from Encana’s well and into hers.
Risk, Canada’s gas producers believe, is something you can literally rule out. As [CAPP’s] Janet Annesley put it, by “getting regulation largely and substantially right in the beginning… we can trust the regulator.” Then, if things go wrong, “[the industry] can go back to the regulator, and the regulator takes on that responsibility.” This sounds a lot like sending the rules committee to the penalty box for a player’s high sticking, but it aptly captures the slippery synergies when industry and government undertake joint ventures in the gas business. … Not everyone follows the rules. Mistakes get made. Accidents happen. [Emphasis added]
Comment posted to the article says it all, by Geoffrey May, November 18, 2011 18:55 EST:
Why does the author grant one of Jessica Ernst’s alleged neighbors anonymity so that he can slander her in print ?