By David Kattenburg
Diana Daunheimer and her husband Derek were a typical young couple pursuing their dreams.
In the summer of 2002, they moved into a rambling old house just outside the village of Didsbury, an hour’s drive north of Calgary, Alberta, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. With high hopes of raising kids and living the good life, Diana, 26 years-old at the time, decided to grow organic produce on their twelve acres of land. High-end restaurants in Calgary and Banff would be sure customers. The short growing season would be a challenge, but the land had been free of chemicals since 1962. “I’ve always been a country girl at heart,” Daunheimer recalls, “and wanted to raise our children in a peaceful, healthy and holistic way.”
Things began well. By 2004, Daunheimer’s greens, herbs and vegetables were certified transitional. Full certification would follow a year later. But in 2008, a nastier crop sprouted around her property: oil drilling rigs pounding at the earth, gouging out deep wells. Each of the oil wells would be hydraulically fractured. By 2010 there were six in total, all within five hundred meters of her home. At the height of activity, her home was pounded by deafening noise, bathed in light, and shrouded in diesel fumes and fracking gases.
Industry spokespeople are quick to point out that hydraulic fracturing has been around for years. Fracking – some prefer to call it “fracing” – was first practiced in Canada in the 1950s; decades earlier in the US. Over the past twenty years, however, something entirely new has become the norm: “Multistage, horizontal fracking” using a cocktail of chemicals to flush out stubborn oil and gas deposits.
It begins with the drilling of a vertical well three or four kilometers deep, from which one or more horizontal legs are extended outwards over a distance of another three or four kilometers, along thin beds of compressed shale. A mixture of water or organic fluids, sand and chemicals is then driven through these horizontal shafts, under enormous pressure, in order to create fissures through which oil and gas can then flow.
All this drilling and fracking generates lots of noise and occasionally earth tremors. Most critically, before a fracked well can enter production, the millions of liters of chemical-laced fluid pumped into it – now contaminated with a host of minerals (some possibly radioactive) – must then be flushed out and discarded. “Produced water” is disposed of in a variety of ways. Alberta farmers are paid to have frack fluids and muds spread on their fields. Some allege that waste frack fluids are spread on public roads.
Fracking activity in the foothills of southern Alberta has attracted far less media attention than oil sands mining around Fort McMurray – a place that reminds Canadian folk-rock icon Neil Young of Hiroshima.
But fracking statistics are mind-boggling: According to the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), the quasi-judicial agency mandated to ensure that Alberta’s energy industry is environmentally safe and sustainable, Alberta frackers have drilled a quarter of a million wells since the mid-1990s, and 260,000 kilometers of vertical and horizontal shaft. That’s five times the circumference of the earth (and a whole lot more than those four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire).
And in the course of preparing their wells for production, in 2012, the frackers burned off or vented 978 million cubic meters of gases into the atmosphere – a shade less than the annual natural gas consumption in Sweden.
Flared or vented frack gases are a great worry for Albertans like Diana Daunheimer. Frackers are only obliged to monitor their gaseous waste stream for hydrogen sulfide and small hydrocarbons like methane, ethane and propane. The more toxic “BTEXs” – benzene, toluene, xylene and their aldehydes – go unreported. Daunheimer and her two children have suffered a host of health problems that may well have arisen from exposure to these.
So have members of a group called Cochrane Area Under Siege, just outside the town of Cochrane, twenty minutes north of Calgary. In response to their complaints, Alberta Health Services compared medical billing records in the Cochrane district with a similar area where fracking is less intense. The results of the study were inconclusive. Dr. Richard Musto, Medical Officer of Health for Alberta Health Services, admits that local health complaints are “biologically plausible,” and that further investigation is warranted. He also indicates that further studies would benefit from a more complete disclosure of the content of airborne emissions from southern Alberta’s fracking operations.
Well water quality is another concern for Albertans living in the vicinity of fracking operations. Leaks arise in the layers of casing surrounding well bores, critics argue, and gases and liquids can migrate through these into the surrounding water table. Rosebud, Alberta landowner Jessica Ernst launched a $33 million lawsuit against energy giant Encana Energy, the Alberta provincial government and the Energy Regulator for an incident of this sort, in which fracked methane migrated into her well water, rendering it flammable (an Alberta provincial judge ruled late last year that the AER is immune from prosecution).
Meanwhile, Diana Daunheimer has launched a suit of her own. She is seeking $13 million (8.7 million Euros) from the Calgary-based Bellatrix Corporation for violating provincial fracking guidelines and endangering her family’s health. Her allegations have yet to be proven in court. Daunheimer’s claim has rattled nerves. Late last year, the company that fracked around her home sold out to Bellatrix Exploration. A week later, Bellatrix offered Daunheimer $50,000 to settle out-of-court. She declined. Bellatrix’s defense statement is due on February 7.