Over the past decade, the combination of horizontal drilling techniques and multi-stage hydraulic fracturing has led to a technological revolution in oil and gas development. It has given rise to a huge North American expansion of oil and gas development from unconventional (tight) resources. This rapid expansion has spurred evolution in industry practice, requiring a parallel development, or advancement of, regulations. It has also captured broad public attention, leading to significant debate over the merits and pitfalls of hydraulic fracturing. Concerns about the impact on water resources are at the core of much of this debate.
Ensuring that leading science underpins decisions about hydraulic fracturing represents a significant challenge. This challenge stems from the polarized nature of many discussions, the rapid pace of industry development and technological advancements, the many unknowns involved, and the very recent advent of research focused on its impacts. Given the complex set of questions and knowledge gaps, ensuring that relevant knowledge can effectively support decisions requires strategic prioritization. This includes consideration of what the most important short and long-term needs are for decision making, how the current knowledge base relates to those priority decisions, and insights into where and how advancing that knowledge base can best support effective outcomes. In light of the importance of the decisions being made and the challenging nature of the debate, trust in the sources of knowledge is fundamental.
While there are certainly some commonalities in the questions being asked about hydraulic fracturing and water across Canada, the realities of the different regional contexts have driven both local concerns and potential responses. Specific geological factors, such as the depth and nature of the target formation, dictate overall technological needs and applications. The local ecological, social and economic conditions influence which risks dominate, and which management approaches for those risks will be viewed as acceptable. This reflects, in part, the level of familiarity and history with the oil and gas industry in different regions of Canada.
Regulatory and management responses are highly varied across Canada as a result of these differences. Outright bans on the use of hydraulic fracturing have been imposed in some areas, while in others there has been a move toward development of area-based or play-based regulations and practice that recognize place-based variations and seek to match management responses to regional or local conditions.
Across Canada, there exists a West-East split in terms of the overall experience and comfort with industry development and its proximity to populated centres, as well as geology that impacts industry options, such as wastewater management. Issues related to Aboriginal communities (First Nations, Inuit and Métis) play a large part in discussions, since hydraulic fracturing activities frequently have important repercussions to Aboriginal lands and communities in particular.
In 2013, Canadian Water Network (CWN) established a national program of five projects, engaging teams of leading researchers from across Canada to conduct comprehensive reviews that consider the key questions related to hydraulic fracturing and water being asked by decision makers; assess the most relevant knowledge gaps in the context of advancing those priority decisions; and identify opportunities for research to better inform them. Each team approached the overall task from the vantage point of one of the following four management focus areas:
- Watershed governance and management approaches for resource development, including Aboriginal issues
- Groundwater and subsurface impact issues
- Wastewater handling, treatment and disposal
- Landscape impacts of development/operations on surface water/watersheds
Taken together, these projects provide a comprehensive and up-to-date assessment of the broad array of issues being faced in Canada and support both the use and generation of knowledge for decision-making going forward.
This report provides a high-level framing to complement the much greater detail provided by the individual CWN-funded teams, as well as other leading international work. Although there are differences in both the focus areas and findings of the various review studies, there is also considerable overlap in the nature of the leading questions being asked and the kinds of gaps that were identified as obstacles to progress. The majority of key questions being asked can be grouped within one of three overall decision contexts:
- Deciding where and when hydraulic fracturing makes sense based on the overall benefits and costs
- Informing best practices and regulations with an understanding of the risks, and how to mitigate them
- Achieving constructive and effective engagement to move the discussion and decisions forward to achieve progress
The key questions being asked within each of these decision contexts provides an accessible entry point and organizing framework for assessing what the overall knowledge base can offer.
Drawing on the findings of the five CWN-funded projects, this report summarizes what we know now, what we most need to know, and what is reasonable for advancement through targeted research. The results of these analyses identify some of the practical opportunities to move the knowledge base forward to directly support decision makers.
CWN acknowledges that the inherent risks and potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing include impacts other than those affecting water resources (e.g., air quality, climate change) and that related decisions also have implications for other issues such as infrastructure, transportation and safety. However, these are not included in this report, which focuses on the centrality of the water-related issues.