When Emily Jobson sent out a call for survey respondents for her master’s theses on the socio-environmental impact of increasing water use for Duvernay development, only 3.2 per cent of those 1,360 canvassed chose to respond. However, the Chevron Corporation intermediate environmental specialist and grad student believes such minimal response could be interpreted as a positive opportunity for the industry to gain highly sought after social license.

“The low response rate could be due to a number of things,” she told this week’s Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada (PTAC) 2013 Water Forum, in describing her survey targeting Alberta’s Fox Creek and Whitecourt communities.

“It could be survey design, it could be the amount of time the survey was online — it was two weeks. It could be inability to do in-person follow up with the persons we distributed the survey invitation letters to, or it could be that 97 per cent of the people in the area have not formed an opinion one way or another yet.

“So this is where industry has a gigantic opportunity. If 97 per cent of people haven’t formed an opinion, they still have an opinion to form.”

According to Jobson, industry must work to provide that information to the public on water use issues because perceptions in the general public are not necessarily based on facts.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s not based on scientific fact; it’s based on what information they’re getting from the people they’re talking to,” she said, adding public perceptions often translate into what degree of social license the public will grant oil and gas companies for certain projects, and industry should not just assume it has the social license secured in areas where it has a long history of operations.

One reoccurring message she heard from survey respondents was that many of them believed water levels in the region’s lakes has been going down as frac operations progress.

“For instance, Smoke Lake in that area had local fishermen and hunters come up to me and say Smoke Lake has gone down by two metres in the past 10 years. That’s anecdotal, obviously, but that is what their perception is — that oil and gas water use is drawing down the local recreational lakes.”

Flowback reuse and use of saline water was another “hot topic” Jobson came across while conducting her survey, with those surveyed wanting their lack of knowledge on these matters to be addressed by industry.

“They get a lot of third-hand knowledge, but they’re not getting any information directly from the companies that are operating in the area.”

On the topic of groundwater contamination, Jobson said, her survey found people in general were more concerned about the impact of the actual fracturing on water supply than they were the disposal of effluent from production.

“Most people believe it is being disposed of responsibly. However … 91 per cent of people feel that the oil and gas industry should be required to recycle a portion of their flowback,” Jobson said, adding people tend to think industry is not doing enough to recycle flowback on its own, and therefore it might be time for regulators to mandate it.

According to Jobson, those surveyed generally believe companies are not sourcing water properly for their frac operations and people tend to believe there is not enough water for all users. However, she said those surveyed tend to believe companies were supporting communities impacted by their operations.

“We’re seeing that people see industry as doing a good job supporting the communities they operate in — so you have

[producers] supporting hockey teams and giving money to charities and stuff like that.”

Jobson reiterated to the forum audience that people in the area are lacking in information, wanting of information, and that equates to a tremendous opportunity for industry to provide information to a population largely “on the fence” regarding issues pertaining to hydraulic fracturing and water use in the Duvernay.

If industry doesn’t provide facts, she said, then people will look for information elsewhere, possibly to the detriment of industry’s efforts to gain social license.

“So industry needs to provide those people with factual information. One of the things you need to remember is that people in that area are going to be doing primarily Internet searches as to how they get their information.”

Development of risk-based criteria for saline water treatment to allow storage and transportation

Speaking on the topic of a regulatory review to develop criteria for possible treatment of saline water for storage in earthen reservoirs and overhead-pipeline transportation, Ian Mitchell, with Millennium EMS Solutions Ltd., also presented at this week’s PTAC water forum. He said a major question the research tried to answer is how much the saline water must be treated to eliminate risks to the environment and human health.

Mitchell said his project looked at regulatory requirements, as well as background on water quality in the Pipestone-Gordondale area of Alberta in which the research project took place. A liability assessment associated with storage and treatment of saline water was also key to the project.

“So one of the big reasons for taking on this project, we’re looking for alternatives to using fresh water for oil and gas operations.”

For developing risk-based criteria, Mitchell said the study looked at two different scenarios. At Gordondale, he said the thought is to potentially store upwards of 50,000 cubic metres of water in an earthen reservoir. At Pipestone, he said, the thought is to store 15,000 cubic metres of saline water.

He said the review looked at what could happen if whatever salinity remained after treatment were to escape from the bottom of the earthen reservoir and eventually end up in an aquifer under the site that was used for drinking water.

“Could it affect dugouts to be used for livestock water or irrigation water in the area? Could it be transported to a nearby surface water body? Could it be brought back up to the surface by capillary rise and impact, for example, plants and crop quality in the area? So we wanted to make sure this practice wasn’t going to have any adverse affects on any of those different receptors.”

He said the review concluded saline concentrations of 5,000 milligrams per litre were not expected to have any adverse impacts on the environment, and liability analysis showed liability to be higher with an unlined storage pond verses a lined pond. However, he said, more discussions with regulators to determine what needs be done in regards to saline water is still required.

“There is an external review of this work underway, and we expect to have the results from that back fairly soon. There will be other phases taking this further, including field-scale research and seeing what actually happens with this treated saline water,” Mitchell said

By Carter Haydu, The Daily Oil Bulletin