Sunday, March 23, 2008

Poisoning the Sacred Headwaters

What have Tar Sands extraction and Coal Bed Methane (CBM) extraction to do with one another? They both involve contamination of ground and surface waters. Sometimes Tar Sands oil is deep underground and the way to extract the oil is to inject steam down the well, to heat and liquify it enough to bring it to the surface. But injecting water under heat and pressure also allows heavy metals and hydrocarbons to leach out of the surrounding rock and clay and they can contaminate groundwater as well as come to the surface with the oil. In CBM production huge amounts of pressurized water are pumped up from deep underground where it can contaminate ground and surface water. But more on this later..

225 kilometers downstream from the Tar Sands is an old Hudson's Bay Company post called Fort Chipewyan. Most of the population of Fort Chipewyan is made up of a combination of Cree, Dene and Metis people. Many of these people live off the land, catching fish, hunting moose and muskrat and picking berries. Lately their ability to hunt and fish has been compromised because the fish have aquired a taste, “like gasoline”. and the moose are reputed to contain high levels of arsenic.

A couple of years ago a doctor raised a big stink about the elevated death rates from rare forms of cancer that were turning up in the Fort Chipewyan population. Alberta Health and Wellness and Health Canada have since sluffed it off as statistical anomalies. They've even driven the doctor who raised the alarm out of the province. After all, this kind of publicity makes it harder to recruit much needed workers for the Tar Sands.

Methane is in big demand these days because conventional gas wells, the kind where they drill a hole and pressurized gas comes to the surface, are drying up. Oil extraction of the Alberta Tar Sands is putting a huge demand on natural gas because it is used to heat the sands and extract the oil. As a result there is a lot of pressure for oil companies to come up with more methane from unconventional sources such as Coal Bed Methane (CBM).

In the states such as Montana and Wyoming, and the provice of Alberta tens of thousands of CBM wells have been dug and many ranchers have had to have their water trucked in or have had to abandon their land because their well water became toxic. We're talking water that had so much methane in it that you could light it on fire.

It was oil companies like Halliburton that first developed the technique of “fracing”, (pronounced “fracking”) or fracturing coal beds to release the methane that was bound to the surface of the coal. In the fracing process a toxic brew of chemicals which may include diesel fuel, benzene, propylene glycol, napthalene, aromatics, etc.,are pressure injected along with explosives to break up and force millions of fissures throughout the coal bed.

The exact mixture of fluids is kept a proprietary secret by each oil company. This makes it difficult to trace where the chemicals come from when they turn up in someone's water supply. But the possibility that these fracing fluids could contaminate groundwater is often denied and minimized both by the oil companies and by compliant governments like Alberta's .

In 2001 Vice President Cheney, former CEO of Halliburton, personally intervened to exempt CBM fracing from regulation under the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act. Now why did he do that? You would think that he would know more about this subject than most people. The problem is that he is supposed to represent the people of the United States, not the oil companies.

What does that matter to us here on the BC coast? North east of here is a place they call the Sacred Headwaters, where the Skeena, the Nass, and the Stikine Rivers have their sources. But there happens to be a big coal bed deposit right underneath the Sacred Headwaters area. The company Royal Dutch Shell wants to start exporatory drilling there for methane. And the BC government has given the go-ahead along with generous subsidies for Dutch Shell to build a road into the disputed area.

The only thing that's been holding Shell up is a road blockade by elders of the Tahltan tribe. Indians! Why do they always block progress? They don't live in the Sacred Headwaters. They just go up there to hunt. So what if the bad water from the CBM wells poisons the caribou and the moose and makes their fish taste like gasoline. They can always buy their meat from Safeway.

With tens of thousands of gallons of contaminated water being pumped out of each CBM well everyday and up to ten thousand wells that could be dug we are talking about a lot of bad water running into these watersheds.
Water runs downhill, and whether all those chemicals are pumped to the surface or contaminate the groundwater, they will eventually get into our food supply.

I don't know what those Indians in Fort Chipewyan are griping about. If they just stopped hunting and fishing, and started drinking bottled water, then they wouldn't die of cancer. Alberta Tar Sands needs our gas and the United States needs the Tar Sands oil and if we happen to live downstream then we should just get used to it. Let's thank Premier Campbell for so generously inviting the oil companies in to develop the Sacred Headwaters. Yes, please write Premier Campbell a letter or e-mail expressing your appreciation of his efforts.


  1. Gary F. Player, the Dirt DoctorMarch 25, 2009 at 1:59 PM

    Hi Charles. I am a petroleum geologist with 45 years experience from Alaska to Venezuela. Some of your concerns are valid, but they can be overcome by good field practices. The main problem is that some state and provincial agencies did not require proper disposal or treatment of CBM produced waters. When an operator is allowed to skip one or more essential steps he will in order to try to make a marginal operation profitable. That's not a good excuse, but it is usually what happens. Conflicts between Montana and Wyoming are leading to better regulation of the Yellowstone River head waters. Get your provincial leaders involved and help develop stiff requirements for cleanup and these problems can be solved.

  2. Thankyou for your comment Gary. Methane, when it's used for heating or cooking, is less objectionable than oil or coal, because it gives off less GHG emissions. But what really kills Coal bed methane for me is it's connection to the tar sands. The biggest and most toxic industrial project in the World. In this area, the methane is destined for the Alberta tar sands, and that says it all for me.