12/17/2012 04:33 EST | Updated 02/16/2013 05:12 EST

Alberta Fracking Regulation: Energy Resources Conservation Board Wants Feedback On New Hydraulic Fracturing Rules

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With AFP Story by Veronique DUPONT: US-Energy-Gas-Environment A Consol Energy Horizontal Gas Drilling Rig explores the Marcellus Shale outside the town of Waynesburg, PA on April 13, 2012. It is estimated that more than 500 trillion cubic feet of shale gas is contained in this stretch of rock that runs through parts of Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and West Virginia. Shale gas is natural gas stored deep underground in fine-grained sedimentary rocks. It can be extracted using a process known as hydraulic fracturing – or 'fracking' – which involves drilling long horizontal wells in shale rocks more than a kilometre below the surface. Massive quantities of water, sand and chemicals are pumped into the wells at high pressure. This opens up fissures in the shale, which are held open by the sand, enabling the trapped gas to escape to the surface for collection. AFP PHOTO/MLADEN ANTONOV (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)

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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