Fracking and water: a scientific approach

Trent Ernst, Editor


Doctor Gilles Wendling recently appeared before council to talk about some of the issues with fracking and groundwater. “The first half of my career, I spent dealing with contaminated groundwater,” says Wendling. “The last half of my career has been on how to keep potable water drinkable.”

Wendling has studied the impacts of industry in much of Northern BC and into Alberta. He has worked on projects in the Sacred Headwaters region, and is currently retained by the Fort Nelson First Nations. “Their territory covers parts of three of the four main gas basins in BC,” he says.

Wendling says that fracking is not just a topic of debate in Canada, but in Germany, UK and South Africa, among others.

“In northeast BC there are about 33,000 wells in ground,” says Wendling. According to his research, and the work of other scientists, up to 20 percent of wells have issues within the first few years. “As a well ages, it degrades. Micro fractures form. There are geochemical reactions. Wells are no longer well sealed.”

This, he says, becomes a pathway for fluids and gases to move. They move from high pressure to low. For instance, if the layer of shale gas has a higher pressure than an aquifer, it will move to the aquifer, even if the aquifer is not as deep as the gas. “It’s just physics,” he says.

Even more troubling, says Wendling, is that these wells are forever. Once you poke a hole through the layers of rock that separates the water from the gas, it is always there. And, with research on old wells showing a nearly 100 percent failure rate after just thirty years, Wendling says that “We are going to modify the underground water systems, but how? The effect could take a long time to be observed. It could take years, it could take decades. And the effect is cumulative. So numbers is important.”

Wendling says certain things may happen when an aquifer is breached. One possibility is that the water from the aquifer will start to flow down through these well holes, causing the water table to drop. “Our surface ecology is very shallow here,” he says. “If water levels drop a meter or two, you cut flow of some rivers in half.”

The position of the oil and gas industry, says Wendling, is that what happens at fracking depth is a different universe than what happens at the surface. But a few years ago, Wendling did a study at the Liard River Hot Springs, According to the data, the water that percolates up into the hot springs started off on a ridge a few kilometres from the springs. “In order to reach that temperature, that water would need to go down to a depth of over 3 kilometres. This is the depth fracking happens at.”

Wendling says he is a scientist, and what he really wants is data. “Let’s put in monitoring wells. Let’s monitor rivers. Let’s build this baseline so if things change and degrade, we can see. If we find methane in ground water in 2030, will we know if it has always been there? Or is it a result of fracking? We need that’s information. The more I learn, the more I realize how ignorant we are.

Wendling says the defining feature of an aquifer is that the water can move; slowly in some cases, quite quickly in others. Clay, he says, is not an aquifer. Even though water is present, it can’t move. It is an aquitard, which prevents water from moving between layers, and, says Wendling, if you punch a hole in the aquitard, the water pressure will change.

“For rivers, aquifers control levels and temperature control, keeping the river cooler in summer and preventing freezing in winter. The effects that fracking have on the water table are permanent and irreversible, and could be devastating.

“We need to project what will happen fifty years down the road. Yes we need jobs, but we also need to know what happens to watershed. It’s important that you make water a priority. What I’ve seen is people do water management for one year or two years, but water management needs to be a long term thing.”