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TRIUMF | Vancouver, BC | Canada

View Blog | Read Bio

Oil, Water, and Mixing

by N.S. Lockyer, Director

Oil and water.

These few words usually denote a problem. Joe and Bill get along like “oil and water.” We all know what that means: they don’t get along. Expect some fireworks. But the world may be changing because of oil and water, and the word to summarize it is “hydraulic fracturing” or just “fracking.” Oil is pouring out of the U.S. in places like North Dakota, New York, Ohio, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania, all due to the new technique of hydraulic fracturing being employed all over the U.S. (and Canada). The International Energy Agency has predicted that the U.S. could be the largest producer of oil in the world by 2017 and may be a net exporter of oil by 2035. Look out climate change!  Although fracking has been around for decades, only in the last few years has it advanced dramatically.

The U.S. consumes about 19 million barrels of oil a day, it produces about 8 million barrels and imports the rest. This voracious thirst for oil drives the U.S. oil imports and the newly forming gas fracking industry. The numbers for fracking are mind-boggling. Huge pumps and massive diesel engines must drive mixtures of water and tonnes of sand (which prevents the fracture from closing up after the process is over), two or more kilometres below the surface.  But once done, the oil leaps from the fractured rock and flows easily to the surface. There are tens of “fracks” per well and each frack lasts anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. The fracking fluid is mostly water but with certain acidic compounds added sometimes to help etch the rock. Interestingly, radioactive isotopes (gamma emitters like colbalt-60) are used to determine properties of the fractures. North Dakota is now producing 750,000 barrels of high quality oil a day up over 50% from last year, moving it past Alaska as the second highest-producing state (Texas is number one). A single well can produce several thousand barrels in a day. A few years ago, only one frack per well was standard.  In North Dakota, the number of wells planned is in the tens of thousands. The land area is massive and extends into Manitoba and Saskatchewan in Canada. Companies think they are still only extracting a few percent of the available oil and research is advanced to evaluate more exotic liquids to get at the rest.

Canada’s national newspaper, the Globe and Mail reported recently (Nov 17th by N. Vanderklippe) that all this drilling in the U.S. will lead to problems for Canada’s oil sands. Canada exports about three million barrels of oil per day, mostly to the U.S., or 27% of all imported oil to the U.S. Canada is the largest exporter of oil to the U.S.  So much oil is now pumping through existing pipelines (they are full) between Canada and the U.S. that oil is being transported by truck and rail now! The heavy oil from Alberta is always in the press for the relatively higher energy intensity needed for extracting a useful final product.  However the reserves are massive (second largest in the world) and it seems hard to believe the U.S. will ignore the opportunity to import oil from its friendly northern neighbour. It will be interesting to see if President Obama approves the 800,000 barrel a day Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to Texas in the near future. The Government of Canada and Alberta wish to forge ahead with plans for oil-sands extraction and building new pipelines. The Canadian public is somewhat less excited about the prospects due to concerns about the environment. Trade-offs!

All in all, there will be a lot of talk about oil independence in the U.S., cheap gas prices, and competitive exports; Canadian oil producers will be increasingly nervous about prices and business. Uncle Sam will be happy as prices are expected to drop. A top concern is the environment.  Should we just leave the oil in the ground because oil and water don’t mix? The alternatives are to develop renewables, conserve energy, and save the water for drinking.

One way or the other, these issues and discussions will affect all of us.


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  • Hmm…

    What about the Earthquakes generated (not immediately be the fracking, but later), and the impact on water quality?

  • Fracking contaminates aquifers plus groundwater. Fracking fluid is a nasty brew of chemicals plus liberated hydrocarbons, pumped underground, typically 15,000 m^3/well.


    The fracking industry furiously denies its broad radius of surface contamination. Sodium fluorescein (uranine) is easily detectable at 0.1 microgram/liter, 0.1 part per billion; to 0.001 part per billion with professional analysis. It is the standard inexpensive water tracer. One gram of uranine/tonne of fracking fluid, one part per million, allows tracing at 10,000 times to 1,000,000 times dilution contamination.

    That the fracking industry does not trivially end groundwater debates with uranine tracer indicates the immensity of ongoing toxic surface contamination.

  • Michele Sacchetti

    Great article. But has the US and (Canadian) govenrnmets, have they not foressen that the contamination of ground water will have a much more significant and worrisome effects on society. I mean, global warming will have (already are signs of weather changing throughout the world) a drastic impact on society (the way we live and where we live). Could we not be looking at much more safe alternative energy source or better yet enforce companies to do more in R&D without leaving behind a carbon footprint and seek alternative resources without affecting the Earth or the environment.

  • I am a young sound engineer. This is an excellent article. It is very helpful and I’ll check back here often. Good luck!

  • A great article. I look forward to the next one.

  • Kuchnie glamour

    How about going solar… There are unlimited things we can do with solar energy and it is a limitless and renewable source of energy. Just saw a video of solar powered roads and driveways. It also does not impact the environment as oil does….