BY DINA O’MEARA, CALGARY HERALD
CALGARY – Hydraulic fracturing of an oil well in southern Alberta could have caused an oil well blowout a kilometre away, according to provincial regulators.
Friday afternoon, a landowner in the Garrington area west of Innisfail spotted a pumpjack spewing what appeared to be oil and chemicals onto his neighbour’s field.
Black fluid from the well sprayed 15 metres in the air until the man was able to alert a hydraulic fracturing crew working on a nearby well for Midway Energy.
They halted operations at the site, then shut down the Wild Stream Exploration pumpjack.
The Energy Resource Conservation Board was alerted about 5: 30 p.m. Friday by the Alberta Surface Rights Group at the behest of the landowner.
“We don’t know the details yet . . . but my understanding is that it appears the fracturing process affected the other well,” said an ERCB spokeswoman, Cara Tobin.
The incident could have repercussions around North America as the industry grapples with rising public discontent over rapidly increasing use of the technology to unlock shale gas and oil reserves.
Fluids blasted deep into the earth under high pressure appear to have intersected underground with the second well, forcing oil up through the well bore at explosive rates.
“We’re still not quite sure what happened,” said Scott Ratushny, Midway Energy’s chief executive. “We’re still investigating it, but something allowed the frack to carry into the same zone, 130 to 140 metres away (underground),”
The company, through Canyon Technical Services, was finishing a 16-stage hydraulic fracture at about 1,400 metres when the rupture occurred. Approximately 50 cubic metres of oil, fracturing fluid, nitrogen and sand were spilled on the surface and have been recovered from the site, Ratushny said.
The Calgary-based producer is one of many chasing after light oil in the Cardium oil formation that extends from just north of Calgary to Whitecourt, in the Edmonton region. “We have drilled over 40 wells in the Cardium in the region without any incidents,” Ratushny said. “We’ve never seen this before.”
The Midway well was drilled in 2011, while provincial records indicate the Wild Stream well was drilled in 1983. Five similar incidents of fracking interfering with an existing well have been reported since 2005, Tobin said.
Don Bester, president of the Alberta Surface Rights Group, is worried the accelerated rate of multi-stage hydraulic fracturing in Alberta could eventually affect water resources underground.
“We’re concerned that these things are going to start damaging aquifers,” said Bester, a retired petroleum engineer. “If they can hit another well, like this one here, what if they communicate and put all that frac fluid into an aquifer and destroy it.”
He noted every formation has natural fractures running through them. If one in the Garrington area was crossed by fracking operations, it could have increased the pressure in Wild Stream’s producing oil pool by five to 10 times.
“Fracks propagate out so far that if they hit one of these natural fracture systems, they will just follow that natural channel straight up from a high pressure zone to a low pressure zone,” Bester said.
Hydraulic fracturing has been used to boost oil and gas production for decades, but at a much more accelerated rate in the past five years in conjunction with horizontal drilling.
Shale gas and tight oil producers have adopted the two technologies as their own, prompting a wave of concern from landowners and environmental groups across North America.
“Incidents like this, and the recent (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) study about Encana Corp.’s activities in Wyoming, all add weight to concerns being raised about hydraulic fracturing,” said Matt Horne, a director with the environmental think-tank Pembina Institute. “We don’t have all the risks figured out and managed at this point.”
Public concerns about the technology affecting water supply prompted Quebec to halt fracking operations in the province, while a number of states south of the border either have put a temporary moratorium on fracking or are reviewing the process.
Encana, the second largest natural gas producer in North America, is fighting allegations its hydraulic fracturing operations in Pavillion, Wyo., affected groundwater in the area.
The Alberta regulator is currently reviewing hydraulic fracturing operations in the province.