The Shale Gas Rush

Posted on December 1, 2010 by


While some nations are investing in the development of technologies to provide renewable energy, others are putting their trust in companies that are digging deeper and deeper for hydrocarbons. In North America, the hydrocarbon giants are now drilling three kilometers down into the earth to extract natural gas from within shale formations. Unfortunately however, this practice is causing problems for many North Americans.

Shale is a greyish sedimentary rock composed of a mixture of clay and other minerals  like quartz and calcite. Layers of shale rocks found a few kilometers below the surface of the Earth can contain pockets of natural gas. This gas was out of the reach of humans for a long time, partly because it was so far down and partly because shale was hard to break through, until advances in technology allowed the technique of hydraulic fracturing. This consists of drilling all the way to the shale layer and then sliding the bore-hole sideways so that it drills horizontally in the shale layer to get as much of the shale surface as possible in contact with the drill. Then a fracturing liquid is pumped through the bore-hole at an immense pressure in order to create a little earthquake that fractures the shale layer. The fracturing liquid consists of an array of more than 596 chemicals mixed with water and sand particles. An enormous quantity of water is used for every fracturing operation: between four and 26 million litres. The chemicals are corrosion inhibitors, gels, liquid breaker-aids, drilling additives, biocides, shale control inhibitors, viscosifires and many others. The gas companies are reluctant to disclose all the names of the chemicals they use due to fear of competition, but they mostly have unpronounceable names, like thiocyanomethylthiobenzothialzole, or carcinogenic effects, like ethylbenzene. The shale layer, once fractured, becomes permeable and the sand and some chemicals of the fracturing liquid hold the fractures open over years so that the gas can seep into the well. A well can be fractured up to 18 times in its life.
450,000 shale gas wells are already in place in 34 states of the United States: Pennsylvania, Montana, New-Mexico, Louisiana, Colorado, Texas, to name a few. The business is expanding and is being seen by some as the answer to the energy crisis in America and the end of a dependency on other nations to provide fuel. They marvel at the idea that they are sitting on what they call two times Saudi Arabia in natural gas. It is all theirs for the taking. Natural gas is cleaner than oil they chant – this is the chance for America to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions!

Other people in America are not so content with these advancements and discourses. These are the people that have shale gas wells literally in their backyards. Unlike in Saudi Arabia, where the oil is pumped in the desert, the American shale gas areas often lie under inhabited areas. The shale gas companies have been sprouting up wells here and there, compensating the land-owners with hundreds of thousands of dollars for the intrusion. The intrusion might however be worth more than money can buy, unfortunately, since the wells are not disturbing the people living in their proximity only visually. Their tap water has been making them and in some cases even their animals sick. Natural gas, and possibly fracturing liquid, has made its way into their water reserves and has contaminated them. This phenomenon is widespread. Film of people from Colorado to Pennsylvania lighting up flames from their dripping tap water, holding samples of yellowish water, displaying sick animals loosing fur, and describing acute headaches have made the news all over the country. Despite this there is still heavy denial from the gas companies and a lack of significant support from above. Should this come as a surprise?

How the gas and fracturing liquid finds its way to the water supplies of individuals is not so clear. The fractures are meant to be blasted far enough from aquifers and private water wells not to get in contact with them. Unfortunately, theory and practice differ. The process might not be advanced enough or regulated well enough to prevent fissures and subterranean leakage. Or maybe it is just impossible to control what a fracture really fractures and where gas decides to seep.

Unfortunately, Québec, a Canadian province that still prides itself in having harnessed its hydropower potential since the mid-1900s, could find itself at suffering these problems. The Québec administration is slowly allowing gas companies to explore the St. Lawrence River Valley for shale gas, arguing that this is the chance for the province to stop relying on gas pumped to them through pipelines from West-Canada. The discourse of the Québec government is the same as the one from the American administration: it is our resource and our chance to become more energy self-sufficient!. To the massive protests of the people of Québec, the government officials answer that they will investigate the exploitation practices from the gas companies before they let them expand their operations. They do not need to worry, their minister of natural resources tells them.

But they do worry. Mistakes happen, carelessness is real and promises disappear when it is profit that is being pumped out. It is their backyards, their kids, their livelihoods that are threatened by the call to harness domestic resources. They know what is happening to the South of them. Should their natural resources minister not also know about this? Why should the reality of shale gas exploitation be any different for them? Maybe Canada is better than the United States at monitoring and answering corporate malpractice that hurt local health and environment (just like they are with the tar sands in Alberta).

What kind of folly allows these nations to let companies tear apart their land, contaminate their citizens’ livelihoods, all supported by the argument that it is for their own good? There have to be other ways to move towards the future, where nations promote, not only renewable energies, but sustainable city planning, recycling programs, environmental policies and awareness. These nations have not grasped that we need to change and that they have a role to play in this, not in holding on desperately to how we functioned before. We have to find ways to stop needing fossil fuels so desperately in our homes and cities. Clean water in our homes and cities on the other hand we will always need – tell that to the gas companies.


References and further reading/watching:

Fox,Josh (2010) “Gasland”, HBO Documentary Films & International WOW Company: USA.

Paul, Cliche (September 2010) “Gas de schiste – Les intérets partisans ne doivent pas primer”, Le Devoir: Montreal, Québec. Last viewed: November 2010.