Fracking 101—what you need to know before seeing Matt Damon in Promised Land

Director Gus Van Sant's new movie Promised Land focuses on how two corporate types—played by Matt Damon and Frances McDormand—try to buy natural-gas drilling rights in Pennsylvania.

The storyline deals with fracking (also known as hydraulic fracturing), which is a controversial method for extracting natural gas found in shale rock.

It's not just happening in Pennsylvania—it's also a major issue in B.C.

According to a recent Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report, "hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of water are pressure-pumped into the ground at individual hydraulic fracturing operations".

"If fresh water is used, it becomes so toxic as a result of being pumped underground that it is typically lost to the hydrological cycle forever," authors Ben Parfitt, Jesse Baltutus, and Oliver M. Brandes write. "The predominant 'water treatment' method of choice is to pump this toxic wastewater deep below the earth's surface for permanent disposal."

The report points out that natural-gas companies have been extracting water from Williston Lake.

That's a massive reservoir created by the W.A.C. Bennett Dam in northeastern B.C.

The rush for water hasn't gone over well with B.C. Hydro, which relies on the reservoir to generate electricity.

Companies pay $2.75 for every 2,500 cubic metres, according to the CCPA. That's a far cry from Quebec where it costs $175 for the same amount of water.

The CCPA mentions that higher water prices "could foster greater conservation".

Energy companies have traditionally been big contributors to the B.C. Liberals.

In the last election year in 2009, Encana Corporation donated $118,000 to the ruling party.

In the 2005 election year, Encana contributed $77,990 to the B.C. Liberals.

Meanwhile last month, the Straight reported that foreign takeovers of Canadian energy companies could result in more fracking for natural gas in B.C.

Three years ago, journalist Chris Wood wrote a Georgia Straight cover story on fracking for natural gas in B.C.

You can read an excerpt below:

Jessica Ernst, a biologist and environmental consultant to the oil and gas industry in Alberta, has firsthand experience of what happens when fracking products don’t stay safely underground. After EnCana drilled and fracked several experimental gas wells in the coulees above her home east of Calgary, Ernst said in a phone interview, “I began to notice that my skin was burning in the shower. I thought it was some weird early menopause thing. Then my dogs suddenly refused to drink the water. They backed up away from it.”

Tests discovered sky-high levels of methane and ethane in Ernst’s tap water and kerosene in the municipal well serving her hamlet of Rosebud. On some days, so much gas bubbled out of Ernst’s tap water that she could (and for demonstration purposes often did, until the risks began to alarm her) set the flaring gas alight.

It should come as no surprise that a hard fracking could open up unforeseen conduits for hydrocarbons and fracking fluid itself to migrate to the surface. Opening channels for the movement of gas and liquids is, after all, the point of the exercise. “The idea is that it expands existing fractures and opens up new ones,” Diana Allen, a ground-water scientist at Simon Fraser University, told the Straight. “If you enhance the permeability of the rock mass—which is the purpose of hydro-fracking—you create pathways, so that if you put something into the ground, it’s going to go somewhere else.”

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