CALGARY - A growing use of fracking in the oilpatch has Alberta's energy regulator looking for public input on new rules that could require companies to submit development plans for entire regions at a time.

"We want to make sure that communities are fully engaged and have a voice early on so that they don't feel that they're being worn down incrementally," Bob Curran, spokesman for the Energy Resources Conservation Board, said Monday.

The current regulatory approach deals with one facility at a time as projects come forward.

But fracking and other unconventional energy might be better regulated one the basis of an entire "play" — defined as one single geological pool of energy, Curran said.

Because fracking plays usually involve pools that are fairly well-mapped, it's possible to lay out from the start a developer's entire plan.

"We have a good idea where they are and how much resource is there," said Curran.

"We have a much better knowledge base from which to move forward. The play-based approach says if a company's going into an area, give us your entire plan for the area as opposed to the incremental approach."

The board also suggests that rules could be slightly different for each play depending on the risks for each resource.

Fracking involves injecting highly pressurized water and chemicals into the ground to fracture bedrock to allow natural gas or oil to be more easily extracted.

The board's discussion paper for the new regulations also suggests that companies involved in the same play work together from the start by sharing information to minimize impacts. Curran acknowledges that could be a tough goal to meet for an industry which jealously guards data.

"We're hopeful that the feedback we get from industry will give us some guidance to overcome those issues."

Curran said the board is reviewing its rules for fracking to get ready for large-scale fracking, which requires much more intensive surface infrastructure.

Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute welcomed the proposed shift to overall development.

"It's an acknowledgment that unconventional resources are different and do require a higher level of management," he said. "The well-by-well process is not effective when you're dealing with the scale and intensity of some of these developments."

Dyer said play-based regulation also lends itself better to managing cumulative effects.

His group will be looking for some way to manage the greenhouse gas impact of fugitive emissions from fracking developments, he said. The review would also be a good chance to "hit the reset" on requirements for industry disclosure and transparency, he added.

Members of the public have until March 31 to make their opinions known to the board.

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  • PRO: Potential Energy Independence

    Estimates by the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/pub/oil_gas/natural_gas/data_publications/crude_oil_natural_gas_reserves/current/pdf/arrsummary.pdf" target="_hplink">United States Department of Energy</a> put the number of recoverable barrels of shale gas at around 1.8 trillion. To put that into perspective, Saudi Arabia is estimated to have roughly <a href="http://www.opec.org/opec_web/en/data_graphs/330.htm" target="_hplink">2.6 trillion barrels of oil reserves</a>. Christopher Booker writes for <em>The Telegraph</em><a href="http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/christopherbooker/8500496/Shale-gas-could-solve-the-worlds-energy-problems.html" target="_hplink"></a> that there are enough world reserves to "keep industrialised civilisation going for hundreds of years"

  • CON: Water Pollution

    A <a href="http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/amall/incidents_where_hydraulic_frac.html" target="_hplink">blog post by the Natural Resource Defense Council</a> explains that "Opponents of such regulation [of fracking] claim that hydraulic fracturing has never caused any drinking water contamination. They say this because incidents of drinking water contamination where hydraulic fracutring is considered as a suspected cause have not been sufficiently investigated." It then goes on to list more than two dozen instances of water pollution to which hydraulic fracking is believed to have contributed. A <a href="http://insideclimatenews.org/news/20111104/gasfrac-propane-natural-gas-drilling-hydraulic-fracturing-fracking-drinking-water-marcellus-shale-new-york" target="_hplink">new waterless method of fracking</a> has been proposed, but environmentalists are skeptical.

  • CON: Leaks More Emissions Than Coal

    Methane is a greenhouse gas and <a href="http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/technology_and_impacts/energy_technologies/how-natural-gas-works.html#enviroimpacts" target="_hplink">major component of shale's carbon footprint</a>. Cornell Professor Robert Howarth said about a study he conducted, "Compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20 percent greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon and is comparable when compared over 100 years."

  • PRO: Burns Cleaner Than Other Fossil Fuels

    <a href="http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=natural-gas-could-serve-as-bridge-fuel-to-low-carbon-future" target="_hplink">Researchers at MIT found that</a> replacing coal power plants with natural gas plants could work as part of a plan to reduce greenhouse emissions by more than 50 percent.

  • CON: Hydraulic Fracking Has Been Linked To Earthquakes

    <a href="http://oilprice.com/Energy/Natural-Gas/U.S.-Government-Confirms-Link-Between-Earthquakes-and-Hydraulic-Fracturing.html" target="_hplink">Several earthquakes both in the U.S. and abroad </a> have been linked to the hydraulic fracturing process. One British company, <a href="http://www.cuadrillaresources.com/cms/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Cuadrilla-Resources-Press-Release-02-11-11.pdf" target="_hplink">Cuadrilla Resources</a>, admitted in a report that its hydraulic fracturing process well "did trigger a number of minor seismic events."

  • PRO: Jobs

    <a href="http://www.treehugger.com/fossil-fuels/facts-on-fracking-pros-cons-of-hydraulic-fracturing-for-natural-gas-infographic.html" target="_hplink">The industry currently employs more than 1.2 million people</a> in the U.S., and the Department of Energy estimates that natural gas resources have increased nearly 65 percent due to fracking, according to a TreeHugger graphic. Additionally, <a href="http://www.bu.edu/energy/files/2011/07/Fracking-article-Sept-14-2011.pdf" target="_hplink">the gas industry accounts for about $385 billion</a> in direct economic activity in the country, a <em>Nature</em> piece reports.

  • CON: Companies Don't Have To Disclose Chemicals Used In Process

    <a href="http://water.epa.gov/type/groundwater/uic/class2/hydraulicfracturing/wells_hydroreg.cfm" target="_hplink">Fracking is exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act of 2005</a>, thus allowing companies to conceal the chemicals used in the process.

  • PRO: Buys Time To Develop Renewable Energy

    Former chief of staff to President Clinton and former head of the Center for American Progress <a href="http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/could-shale-gas-reignite-the-us-economy-11032011_page_2.html" target="_hplink">John Podesta says natural gas can serve</a> "as a bridge fuel to a 21st century energy economy that relies on efficiency, renewable sources, and low-carbon fossil fuels."

  • CON: Requires Large Amounts Of Water

    The fracking process can require around <a href="http://www.hydraulicfracturing.com/Water-Usage/Pages/Information.aspx" target="_hplink">five million gallons</a> of water. In some cases<a href="http://www.treehugger.com/fossil-fuels/facts-on-fracking-pros-cons-of-hydraulic-fracturing-for-natural-gas-infographic.html" target="_hplink"> less than a third of that water is recovered</a>.