By Environment Correspondent Alister Doyle OSLO (Reuters) – Scientists are finding evidence that man-made climate change has raised the risks of individual weather events, such as floods or heatwaves, marking a big step towards pinpointing local costs and ways to adapt to freak conditions. “We’re seeing a great deal of progress in attributing a human fingerprint to the probability of particular events or series of events,” said Christopher Field, co-chairman of a U.N. report due in 2014 about the impacts of climate change. Experts have long blamed a build-up of greenhouse gas emissions for raising worldwide temperatures and causing desertification, floods, droughts, heatwaves, more powerful storms and rising sea levels. But until recently they have said that naturally very hot, wet, cold, dry or windy weather might explain any single extreme event, like the current drought in the United States or a rare melt of ice in Greenland in July. But for some extremes, that is now changing. A study this month, for instance, showed that greenhouse gas emissions had raised the chances of the severe heatwave in Texas in 2011 and unusual heat in Britain in late 2011. Other studies of extremes are under way. Growing evidence that the dice are loaded towards ever more severe local weather may make it easier for experts to explain global warming to the public, pin down costs and guide investments in everything from roads to flood defenses. “One of the ironies of climate change is that we have more papers published on the costs of climate change in 2100 than we have published on the costs today. I think that is ridiculous,” said Myles Allen, head of climate research at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute. “We can’t (work out current costs) without being able to make the link to extreme weather,” he said. “And once you’ve worked out how much it costs that raises the question of who is going to pay.” Industrialized nations agree they should take the lead in cutting emissions since they have burnt fossil fuels, which release greenhouse gases, since the Industrial Revolution. But they oppose the idea of liability for damage. Almost 200 nations have agreed to work out a new deal by the end of 2015 to combat climate change, after repeated setbacks. China, the United States and India are now the top national emitters of greenhouse gases. Field, Professor of Biology and Environmental Earth System Science at the University of Stanford, said that the goal was to carry out studies of extreme weather events almost immediately after they happen, helping expose the risks. “Everybody who needs to make decisions about the future – things like building codes, infrastructure planning, insurance – can take advantage of the fact that the risks are changing but we have a lot of influence over what those risks are.” FLOODS Another report last year indicated that floods 12 years ago in Britain – among the countries most easily studied because of it has long records – were made more likely by warming. And climate shifts also reduced the risks of flooding in 2001. Previously, the European heatwave of 2003 that killed perhaps 70,000 people was the only extreme where scientists had discerned a human fingerprint. In 2004, they said that global warming had at least doubled the risks of such unusual heat. The new statistical reviews are difficult because they have to tease out the impact of greenhouse gases from natural variations, such as periodic El Nino warmings of the Pacific, sun-dimming volcanic dust or shifts in the sun’s output. So far, extreme heat is the easiest to link to global warming after a research initiative led by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the British Meteorological Office. “Heatwaves are easier to attribute than heavy rainfall, and drought is very difficult given evidence for large droughts in the past,” said Gabriele Hegerl of the University of Edinburgh. Scientists often liken climate change to loading dice to get more sixes, or a baseball player on steroids who hits more home runs. That is now going to the local from the global scale. Field said climate science would always include doubt since weather is chaotic. It is not as certain as physics, where scientists could this month express 99.999 percent certainty they had detected the Higgs boson elementary particle. “This new attribution science is showing the power of our understanding, but it also illustrates where the limits are,” he said. A report by Field’s U.N. group last year showed that more weather extremes that can be linked to greenhouse warming, such as the number of high temperature extremes and the fact that the rising fraction of rainfall falls in downpours. But scientists warn against going too far in blaming climate change for extreme events. Unprecedented floods in Thailand last year, for instance, that caused $ 45 billion in damage according to a World Bank estimate, were caused by people hemming in rivers and raising water levels rather than by climate change, a study showed. “We have to be a bit cautious about blaming it all on climate change,” Peter Stott, head of climate monitoring and attribution at the Met Office’s Hadley Centre, said of extremes in 2012. Taken together, many extremes are a sign of overall change. “If you look all over the world, we have a great disastrous drought in North America … you have the same situation in the Mediterranean… If you look at all the extremes together you can say that these are indicators of global warming,” said Friedrich-Wilhelm Gerstengabe, a professor at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. (Additional reporting by Sara Ledwith in London; Editing by Louise Ireland)
Early last year, deep in the forests of northern British Columbia, workers for Apache Corp. performed what the company proclaimed was the biggest hydraulic fracturing operation ever.
The project used 259 million gallons of water and 50,000 tons of sand to frack 16 gas wells side by side. It was “nearly four times larger than any project of its nature in North America,” Apache boasted.
The record didn’t stand for long. By the end of the year, Apache and its partner, Encana, topped it by half at a neighboring site.
As furious debate over fracking continues in the United States, it is instructive to look at how a similar gas boom is unfolding for our neighbor to the north.
To a large extent, the same themes have emerged as Canada struggles to balance the economic benefits drilling has brought with the reports of water contamination and air pollution that have accompanied them.
The Canadian boom has differed in one regard: The western provinces’ exuberant embrace of large-scale fracking offers a vision of what could happen elsewhere if governments clear away at least some of the regulatory hurdles to growth.
Even as some officials have questioned the wisdom of doing so, Alberta and British Columbia have dueled to draw investment by offering financial incentives and loosening rules. The result has been some of the most intensive drilling anywhere.
“There definitely is concern on the part of people living in northeast B.C. on the scale of developments, which are quite significant already and are only in their infancy,”said Ben Parfitt, an analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a research institute that promotes environmental sustainability. “We are seeing some of the largest fracking operations anywhere on earth.”
Public opposition, coupled with low gas prices, has slowed drilling over the past year. Still, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers expects production from shale and other unconventional sources to more than triple in the next decade.
The industry’s aggressive plan for growth has drawn an ambivalent response from the nation’s top environmental officials.
In March, Canada’s deputy minister of the environment sent an internal memo warning that more work was needed to assess the risks from shale gas drilling. The memo, obtained by an Ottawa-based newspaper and addressed to Environment Minister Peter Kent, said water use and contamination top a list of environmental concerns including air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and the use of unknown toxic chemicals. Kent subsequently ordered two studies looking at the safety and environmental impacts of shale drilling.
Yet, in a written response to questions from ProPublica, the environment ministry affirmed its commitment to continued development.
“Our Government believes shale gas is an important strategic resource that could provide numerous economic benefits to Canada,” the ministry’s statement said. Gas is an important part of a clean energy future, the ministry added, saying that “a healthy environment and a strong economy go hand in hand.”
B.C., Alberta Lure Drillers
Canada’s current drilling boom dates to the late 1990s, when Encana began using fracking to extract gas from dense rock in northern British Columbia.
The second-largest gas driller in North America, Encana also started fracking shallow coal seams, or coalbed methane, in Alberta in the early 2000s, using nitrogen rather than water to free the gas. Coalbed methane drilling generally requires less fluid than fracking shale but occurs much closer to drinking water. In some cases, Encana and other companies have drilled wells directly into aquifers, injecting fracking fluids into groundwater suitable for drinking.
In the middle of the last decade, Encana and other operators started exploring northern British Columbia’s shale gas reserves. The formations were promising, holding at least 200 trillion cubic feet of gas, according to industry estimates.
But drillers faced formidable hurdles to get to it. Unlike the Barnett and Marcellus shales in the U.S., Canada’s best shale basins are far from most markets and existing infrastructure. Soggy ground slows drilling in the spring and summer, and the average high temperature hovers around zero degrees Fahrenheit in January.
To encourage development, British Columbia enacted a series of incentives, including reduced royalties for deep drilling and credits for building roads and pipelines in the remote regions.
These changes, combined with the area’s severe conditions, spurred companies to concentrate and scale up their operations in British Columbia in an effort to cut costs, industry experts say. The result: a string of record-breaking fracks.
In a written response to questions from ProPublica, Apache said this approach reduces surface disturbance. It also can heighten the risk of air and water pollution, said Bruce Kramer, an expert in oil and gas law with McGinnis, Lochridge and Kilgore, a Texas-based law firm.
In both western provinces, the regional authorities responsible for regulating drilling have passed rules to allow more intensive drilling.
In Alberta, drillers can now pack wells closer together and pump more water out of shallow coal seams to free gas more efficiently. British Columbia issued detailed regulations last year that limit where and when companies can drill and set rigorous environmental standards but also gave its Oil and Gas Commission the authority to exempt drillers from virtually all of these provisions.
The commission referred an inquiry from ProPublica to its parent organization, the Ministry of Energy and Mines. In written responses to questions, the Ministry said the new regulations adequately address environmental concerns over drilling activity in the province. Pointing to an upcoming health study and new rules that compel companies to disclose chemicals used in fracking, officials said they would continue to review and revise standards as necessary.
Still, the regulatory shifts have prompted environmental advocates in Alberta and British Columbia to question whether officials are prepared to cope with rising concerns about water use, contamination and unchecked development.
“We just don’t have a clue how big this issue is from a public policy perspective,”said Bob Simpson, a member of British Columbia’s legislative assembly and an outspoken critic. “We really don’t know what we’re doing.”
Jessica Ernst’s Water Problems
Over the last five years, there have been several prominent cases in which Alberta residents have said gas drilling contaminated their water.
There are no hard numbers. The government does not track such complaints. But in some instances, residents’ frustration has been exacerbated by their sense that regulators have not properly investigated their claims.
In 2005, Jessica Ernst noticed strange things happening to her water. The toilet fizzed. The faucets whistled. Black particles clogged her filter. Then she began getting rashes.
Ernst, a longtime environmental consultant for oil and gas companies, wondered whether the changes could be connected to drilling nearby. Encana had been drilling shallow coalbed methane wells near her home outside of Rosebud, about 50 miles northeast of Calgary.
She asked Alberta Environment and Water, the agency that oversees groundwater, to test her well. When the well was drilled in 1986, tests showed it had no methane. The new tests, however, showed high levels of the gas, as well as a hydrocarbon called F2 and two other chemicals.
Ernst wasn’t satisfied with the province’s response, however. The government’s report concluded that the methane in her well might be occurring naturally because tests showed similar levels of gas in nearby wells. But the tests were conducted after Ernst noticed the changes in her water — she saw the results as an indication that the contamination might be more widespread.
The government’s report also ignored evidence provided by one of its own analysts, a professor of geochemistry at the University of Alberta. When Karlis Muehlenbachs analyzed the gas in Ernst’s well for Alberta Environment and Water, he found ethane, a gas often found with methane, with a chemical signature indicating that it had come from deep underground, below the depth of the well. Muehlenbachs told ProPublica that the ethane’s signature meant that it could not have been there naturally. He said he is convinced that it resulted from drilling.
As Ernst searched for answers to what happened to her water, she unearthed evidence of other problems related to drilling. She found an Alberta Environment and Water report that listed cases in which the fracking of shallow wells resulted in gas or fluid leaking into nearby gas wells or spraying into the air. She also found government gas well records that said Encana had fracked into the aquifer that supplies her water well.
“The community was used as a test tube,”she said. “I was used as a test tube.”
Ernst, who is asking for about $ 33 million Canadian in damages and return of wrongful profits, has vowed she will not accept a settlement that includes a confidentiality agreement, as others have done.
“Somebody has to do this,”she said.
Alan Boras, a spokesman for Encana, said the company would not comment on the case.
The Energy Resources Conservation Board denied a request for an interview. In written responses to questions, spokesman Bob Curran said he could not comment on the specifics of Ernst’s case, but the agency is confident it has conducted itself appropriately.
Carrie Sancartier, a spokeswoman for Alberta Environment and Water, would not comment on Ernst’s allegations because of the lawsuit but said there have been no confirmed cases of gas drilling contaminating water wells in the province.
Muehlenbachs, whose work has been used in several government investigations, said that is “simply false.” He said he’s analyzed thousands of cases of gas leaking up well bores and knows of at least a dozen cases of water contamination.
There have been no reports of groundwater contamination related to new drilling in British Columbia.
Increasingly, however, there are reports of something called “communication” — events in which a fracture travels through the ground and connects two gas wells.
Ken Paulson, chief engineer at the province’s Oil and Gas Commission, said these events do not pose a contamination risk. Other experts say their principal impact is to undermine production.
But opponents of expanded shale drilling say instances of communication show that drillers lack a full understanding of what happens when wells are fracked closer together, increasing the risk of contamination. Anthony Ingraffea, an engineering professor at Cornell University, said that if a fracture hit a natural fault, it could allow contaminants to enter aquifers.
The advisory said the operator contained the resulting jump in pressure within the well but warned of a “potential safety hazard.” When communication occurs, Paulson said, the biggest concern is that an operator could lose control of a well and cause a blowout.
Concerns Over Water Consumption
As the debate over communication continues, Parfitt and other Canadian environmentalists have raised more immediate concerns about water use. Fracking requires lots of water — on their biggest reported fracking job, Apache and Encana used an average of 28 million gallons of water per well.
While the oil and gas industry says it is responsible for 1 percent or less of British Columbia’s overall water use, environmental advocates say that may not reflect the full extent of the industry’s consumption or long-term needs.
Drillers use both surface and groundwater. Access to surface water is regulated by two agencies that issue long-term licenses or year-long permits. Overwhelmingly, energy companies have chosen to obtain permits, which require less regulatory review.
Most groundwater withdrawals aren’t regulated at all. Drillers need permits to sink water wells, but there are no limits on the amount of water that can be taken from them. They can also purchase water from other well owners, so there’s no way to track overall use.
“How much water is actually being used and, more importantly, how much water is projected to be used over next the 10 to 15 years? Because of the scattershot approach of regulation, this isn’t something we can actually answer right now,”said Matt Horne, acting director of the climate change program at the Pembina Institute, an environmental think tank that published a report on the gas industry’s water use.
The Ministry of Energy and Mines, in a written response to questions, said the province is taking several steps to improve oversight of water use, including a research project studying aquifers. The agency said it can review large groundwater withdrawal projects and that pending changes to the province’s water law would regulate withdrawals.
Drillers themselves are also moving to address water concerns. Encana and Apache have started using saline water not suitable for drinking or irrigation in some of their projects. Alan Boras, the Encana spokesman, said the company uses non-potable water almost exclusively in its main operating area in the Horn River Basin, where the largest frack jobs were reported.
Environmentalists say they welcome the effort, but caution that these projects are tiny compared to the industry’s overall water use.
Governments, Industry Get Cozy
Public backlash to fracking has become such a concern for drillers and provincial governments in western Canada that last year they launched a joint effort to counter it.
The memo, which was leaked in August and published by the Alberta Federation of Labour, a union group, said the provinces and petroleum producers would work together to develop “key messages” on shale drilling to persuade the public not to fear fracking.
“The project will help to demonstrate that shale gas extraction is viable, safe and environmentally sustainable,” the memo said.
The memo blamed environmental groups for spreading misleading information and stirring opposition to drilling.
“Environmental Non-Government organizations (ENGOs) are supporting a ill-informed [sic] campaign on hydraulic fracturing and water related issues in British Columbia and in other jurisdictions,” it said. “This is expected to grow as shale gas development expands into Alberta and Saskatchewan.”
In a separate memo, Alberta Environment and Water reported that the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers had approached the province to work on a joint public relations campaign.
Ultimately, no campaign materialized.
Janet Annesley, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said the group hadn’t wanted to join forces on PR but was just informing the province of plans to publish voluntary standards for shale gas drilling.
Still, critics saw the memo as proof of an overly cozy relationship between the government and the industry.
Bart Johnson, a spokesman for Alberta’s Energy Minister, said the petroleum producers had suggested a joint PR initiative but dropped the request. Such a collaboration, however, would not have been inappropriate, he said. The government works with industry groups all the time, he said, citing a campaign with education groups against bullying in schools.
“Oil and gas is huge in Alberta. It fuels our economy. Indeed it fuels the economy of Canada,” Johnson said. “Any suggestion that we shouldn’t meet with that industry is ridiculous.”