Just when most of us thought the last drops of fossil fuel were being squeezed from Planet Earth, we learn that a new oil boom has just begun. In fact, George Monbiot, writing in The Guardian this week says there’s still enough oil around to fry us all! And much of that lies below ground in North America, mainly in the United States.
That large deposits of oil and gas lie below North Dakota in the Bakken Formation has been known since the early 1950s. Estimates of recoverable oil there now range from 4 – 24 billion barrels. However, up to quite recently, it has been difficult and uneconomical to extract. What’s new is “fracking” or hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. Fracking involves injecting vast quantities of water, sand and toxic chemicals down a well under great pressure. This fractures the shale rock and the grains of sand hold the cracks open so that the oil or gas can be extracted. Horizontal drilling means that much fewer wells need to be drilled and there is little chance of drilling a dry well. The drilling rig pictured above is in the hamlet of Del Bonita on the Alberta/Montana border close to the Rocky Mountains.
The Bakken Formation, while centred below North Dakota and Montana, extends into the southern part of the Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Although Alberta is notorious for the oil it produces from tar sands in the northern part of the province, southern Alberta has been a haven for conservationist ranchers and wildlife in and around Waterton-Glacier National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Last year drilling for oil and gas started in earnest in southern Alberta and the prairie landscapes is now dotted with drilling rigs and pump-jacks.
Canada’s image as a land of great natural beauty and champion of the environment is changing. Economic considerations are now trumping environmental concerns in some parts of the country.