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sector_ico_Environment_trans Environment

Natural Attenuation and Phytoremediation of Fracking Fluids

  • Project Leaders: Sean Crowe, Diana Almeida, Laurie Welch, Shawn Mansfield
  • Institutions: University of British Columbia (UBC)
  • Budget: $353500
  • Program/Competition: User Partnership Program
  • Genome Centre(s): Genome British Columbia
  • Fiscal Year: 2016
  • Status: Closed

Shale gas, the natural resource that feeds British Columbia’s Liquid Natural Gas strategy, is extracted using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking). Fracking uses large volumes of water and chemical additives (frac fluid) to make it easier for natural gas to move through the shale rock, increasing the amount that flows into the wells. Where those additives end up and their effect on the surrounding environment is not well understood. There are concerns about the environmental impacts of potential spills/releases of fracking fluids during routine shale gas extraction operations. The BC Energy Regulator agency partnered with PETRONAS Canada and two academic research labs at the University of British Columbia to investigate ways to reduce and clean up harmful substances linked to shale gas projects.

A literature review of the most commonly used fracking fluid components identified a list of priority substances that were most likely to be cleaned up by natural processes in the soil. Genomic analysis from a collection of soil samples from pristine and disturbed sites identified microbial community fingerprints that may serve as indicators showing the condition of the soil and how well remediation activities are working. The project also conducted research in a natural environment under controlled conditions (mesocosm) that identified microbes with the capacity to degrade specific frac fluid contaminants.   

In greenhouse trials, the research team examined how trees could help clean up pollution by soaking up and storing harmful substances. This activity looked at the response of native trees to frac fluids and high salt concentrations to understand the range of tolerance to exposure. A Canadian willow species and a willow hybrid performed well in small-scale trials while maintaining growth after exposure, which is important in the uptake of salts and frac fluid contaminants from the environment.

The foundational knowledge and research deliverables from this project provide a potential path forward for the use of natural processes in the environment to reduce the concentration or impact of contaminants over time (natural attenuation) and the use of specific plants to clean up pollution (phytoremediation) resulting from fracturing fluid substances.