A report out of the United States, which found a connection between fracking fluids and worker fatalities, should serve as a wake-up call for Canada’s burgeoning oil and gas sector.
On May 19, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in Washington, D.C. confirmed that at least four workers have died since 2010 from what appears to have been acute chemical exposures during flowback operations at well sites in the Williston Basin in North Dakota and Montana. Although not all of these investigations are complete, the NIOSH said information suggested that these cases involved workers who had been gauging flowback or production tanks or transferring flowback fluids at the well sites.
While four worker fatalities may not seem high from an industry perspective, these incidents raise questions regarding fracking fluids and the hazards they pose to employees working with these chemicals. The composition of high-pressure fluids used to fracture the rock and release natural gas are often highly guarded trade secrets. While the additives used in fracturing fluids are generically similar, different mixes of chemicals are used based on site conditions and local geology. As such, companies are reluctant to disclose these recipes so as to protect their competitive advantage.
In Canada, regulatory requirements surrounding the disclosure of fracking chemicals are patchy at best. While some companies provide full disclosure voluntarily, others claim that the confidentiality of the recipes must be protected. As regulatory approvals for fracking activities fall largely under provincial jurisdiction, with several aspects covered under federal legislation, Ottawa has sometimes been criticized for adopting a “hands-off” approach to fracking.
That said, oil and gas companies in Canada are coming under increasing pressure to reveal the toxic brew that makes up fracking fluids. For example, British Columbia and Alberta require operators to post on a public website (fracfocus.ca) the chemical additives used in their fracturing fluids on a per-well basis, along with their maximum concentration, within 30 days of completing a fracturing job.
In June, the Northwest Territories announced that it would start developing regulations under the territory’s Oil and Gas Operations Act to set out filing requirements for projects involving hydraulic fracturing. David Ramsey, Minister of Justice and Industry, Tourism and Investment in Yellowknife, said fracking had spurred worker safety concerns, particularly around the risk of exposure to silica.
While a whopping 98 per cent of fracking fluid comprises water and sand, the remaining two per cent is a combination of chemicals that can simply be described as nasty. Given the quantity of water required for most fracturing operations, the miniscule percentage of additives translates into significant amounts of chemicals used, notes a 2014 report, Environmental Impacts of Shale Gas Extraction in Canada, by the Council of Canadian Academies. The report also points to a knowledge gap between the large-scale deployment of technologies used by Canada’s shale-gas industry and their implications on both the environment and human health.
Perhaps the toxicity of fracking fluids is best reflected in the industry’s resistance to disclose the chemical make-up of these fluids. In May, North Carolina voted against disclosure by passing a bill that would make it a crime to reveal the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, citing the need to protect trade secrets.
Recent developments in Canada, which seem to point towards disclosure, are encouraging, since no trade secret — however compelling from a business standpoint — should ever trump human lives.