Oct. 6, 2015

Broad new report identifies knowledge gaps in hydraulic fracking debate

University scientist contributes to comprehensive assessment of how existing research can help decision-makers


Drew Scherban

University of Calgary geoscience professor Cathy Ryan worked with the Canadian Water Network, a national organization that integrates water knowledge and research into practice across Canada.

Geoscience professor Cathy Ryan worked with the Canadian Water Network.

University of Calgary geoscience professor Cathy Ryan, along with colleagues from 18 universities across Canada and 20 partners including aboriginal organizations, government, industry and non-governmental organizations, are hoping a new set of sister scientific reports can help to better understand the divisive topic of hydraulic fracturing and its associated environmental impacts.

Central to the debate is the issue of water — its use, its management and protection, and its ecological, social and economic importance.

The report, issued by Canadian Water Network (CWN) on Tuesday, draws widely on five CWN-funded projects from 2014-2015 including Ryan’s earlier research: "Subsurface Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing: Contamination, Seismic Sensitivity, and Groundwater Use and Demand Management."

Hydraulic fracturing, an activity which has increased dramatically in recent years, has the potential to significantly impact subsurface and groundwater resources, yet remains a topic of much ambiguity and even scientific controversy.

“The outcome of this report is that we have identified the most important knowledge gaps that need to be addressed in order to move forward with environmentally responsible petroleum development,” says Ryan.

Ryan sees two top knowledge gaps as key areas of focus: stray methane emissions from hydraulic fracturing sites, and induced seismicity — or minor earthquakes and tremors — both from hydraulic fracturing and from deep well injection of wastewater. “The issue of methane leakage into shallow aquifers has both health and asthetic related implications,” says Ryan. “Methane invasion into an aquifer can cause release of metals into the groundwater, it can present an explosion hazard, and it can change the taste and odor of the groundwater.” Although the CWN report was focused on horizontal wells that are hydraulically fractured, the industry is now recognizing that a fraction of all wells are leaking.

“In northern B.C. and Alberta where induced seismicity has been observed, there is a low population density, and so somewhat lower risk. But if unconventional oil and gas development were to happen in areas with high population density, there would be increased concern and increased risk,” says Ryan.

A wellhead after hydraulic fracturing equipment has been removed from the site.

A wellhead after hydraulic fracturing equipment has been removed from the site.

Joshua Doubek licensed under Wikimedia Commons

2015 water and hydraulic fracturing report

Summarizing the sister reports prepared by Ryan and colleagues, the CWN issued "Water and Hydraulic Fracturing: Where Knowledge Can Best Support Decisions in Canada," The sister reports provide a comprehensive and up-to-date assessment of where effective access to research can lead to better decisions.

“The focus of the report is about helping to ensure decision-makers get real value from existing knowledge to support their decisions on what to do now and where to go next,” says Bernadette Conant, chief executive officer of CWN.

CWN’s next step will be surveying decision-makers this fall to determine which of the knowledge needs highlighted in the report are of highest regional and national priority for managing and mitigating the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on water. The results of the survey will identify areas where priorities are held in common. CWN will use these shared priorities as cornerstones in the development of a collaborative research agenda that sets out strategic research options to address the needs of decision-makers in government, industry, aboriginal communities and NGOs.

Hydraulic fracturing research on campus

The University of Calgary’s energy research strategy, Energy Innovations for Today and Tomorrow, positions the institution as a global leader in energy research. The strategy is addressing hydraulic fracturing as one of four Grand Challenges — areas in which the university has significant capacity to address key issues.

The multidisciplinary Hydraulic Fracturing Innovations (HFI) initiative is tackling some of the biggest scientific, social and policy questions surrounding hydraulic fracturing. The HFI team is partnering with academics, industry and government to adopt a transparent, evidence-based approach working toward solutions that benefit society, the economy and the environment.