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Special report: Leaking oil and gas wells across Canada ‘a threat to the environment and public safety’

Energy firms are boring another 10,000 wells a year as controversial fracking operations in Western Canada extend their reach

BY MARGARET MUNRO, POSTMEDIA NEWS 

Serge Fortier has been trying for years to raise awareness about leaking oils and gas wells along the St. Lawrence River. Nothing has been quite as effective as setting them on fire.

“The reaction came very rapidly,” says Fortier, an environmental activist whose fiery demonstration near Ste-Francoise has prompted the Quebec government to acknowledge it has a problem — one that regulatory officials are often not keen to discuss.

Hydraulic fracturing — popularly known as fracking — involves injecting large amounts of water, grit and chemicals into gas and oil wells under high pressure to fracture the rock and release natural gas.

Hydraulic fracturing — popularly known as fracking — is a potential threat to groundwater quality

In Alberta, where old wells have been uncovered in schoolyards, backyards and at shopping malls, officials are saying little about a well that has now turned up at Calgary’s airport, which is in the midst of a $2-billion expansion.

“There is an investigation right now with respect to an abandoned well at the airport,” Brenda Cherry, vice-president of closure and liability at the Alberta Energy Regulator, told Postmedia News. She would not comment on whether the airport well is leaking or if it’s under the new 4.2-kilometre runway, saying details are “confidential” until the investigation is complete.

And in British Columbia, where it’s estimated as many as 10 per cent of oil and gas wells leak, one leak reportedly cost $8 million to repair.

More than 550,000 holes have been drilled in Canada since North America’s first well gushed “black gold” in southern Ontario in 1858. And industry is boring another 10,000 wells a year as controversial fracking operations in Western Canada extend their reach.

As the wells proliferate, so do concerns about the way many of the kilometres-deep holes in the ground are leaking because of cracked, poorly formed and decaying plugs and seals.

Industry says the plumbing problems can be managed, but questions mount over the way the wells are compromising not only the landscape but the water and resources below.

Research suggests that tens of thousands of wells are leaking and some experts argue concerns over fracking are misplaced, saying “wellbore leakage” is the bigger threat.

The leakage affects fracking, as well as conventional oil and gas wells, and is “the more significant issue affecting the social license of the oil and gas industry,” says a recent University of Waterloo report that describes the leaks as “a threat to the environment and public safety.”

The “fugitive” gases often escape from geological formations that oil and gas wells slice through on their way down to the energy deposits being targeted. The gas is buoyant and seeps up through cracks and poorly cemented seals on the wells.

Much of the leaking gas is methane, the main component of natural gas and a potent greenhouse gas. The gas escapes into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change, and can cause explosions when it accumulates in poorly ventilated areas.

The gas also can seep through the ground, potentially contaminating groundwater, which 30 per cent of Canadians depend on for their drinking supply.

Industry and government regulators say the leaks can be plugged and “safely” managed. Critics are not convinced.

“The solution is to stop drilling wells,” says Fortier, of the Collectif Moratoire Alternatives Vigilance Intervention, a citizens’ group.

He does not believe that wells, which cut down through ancient geological formations, can ever be adequately resealed and points to the sorry state of the 700 wells in Quebec as evidence. Methane is leaking from both shale gas wells drilled since 2000 and wells drilled decades ago.

At the media event in August in Ste-Francoise, Fortier set fire to the gas venting from a pipe on one well. He also lit gas seeping out of the ground near the wells.

The Quebec government announced in October a plan to step up inspections and work with Fortier’s group to locate and assess the wells concentrated along the St. Lawrence River.

The job of monitoring and repairing Canada’s wells could be endless as leaks can develop when wells are operating and long after the oil and gas operators pull out. Researchers say seals, plugs and repair jobs can fail years after wells are abandoned. The “bridge plugs” commonly used to abandon Canadian wells are prone to “mechanical failure,” according to a report done for Alberta’s energy regulator.

Geotechnical and groundwater specialists, who assessed the environmental impacts of shale gas fracking for the federal government, pointed to leakage as a “long-recognized yet unresolved problem.” They say wells may need to be monitored “in perpetuity because, even after leaky older wells are repaired, deterioration of the cement repair itself may occur.”

The panel’s report, released this spring, advocated a “go-slow” approach to shale gas fracking.

Quebec and the Maritime provinces have put the brakes on fracking, but “slow” is not a word often associated with the operations underway in northern B.C. and Alberta. More than 2,000 fracking wells have been drilled, and there are plans for thousands more.

Proponents, such as federal Finance Minister Joe Oliver, play down the risks.

“Fracking has been going on in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan for over 50 years,” Oliver said in September. There has not been “a single case” of drinkable water contamination, Oliver said.

Researchers say one reason few problems have surfaced is because little effort is made to find them.

Provincial regulators do require companies to test for and repair “serious” leaks in the casings of operating wells, known as “surface casing vent flows.” This gas vents into the atmosphere.

But this is “most likely only part of the gas that is migrating” because “subsurface emissions remain unquantified,” say engineers Maurice Dusseault and Richard Jackson, co-authors of the University of Waterloo report.

In one long-running battle by a landowner, Jessica Ernst has filed a $33-million lawsuit against the Alberta government and energy company Encana, alleging fracking on her land northeast of Calgary contaminated her well water. A judge ruled in November that Ernst can sue the Alberta government for not properly investigating her concerns about her well water, which contains so much methane she can light it on fire.

Industry says there has never been a proven case of fracking contaminating drinking water, but it acknowledges “surface casing vent flow” is a problem that enables gas to seep up cracked, corroded and poorly sealed and cemented wells.

A new Canadian standard and an industry recommended practice are being developed to address the “challenges” of sealing new wells and the “remedial” repair of old wells, says Brad Herald, vice-president of Western Canada operations at the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

While methane is flammable and a potent greenhouse gas, he notes that the naturally occurring gas is not toxic to humans.

Regulators say they are on top of the leakage issue.

“We have regulations and experts in place to understand and manage the possibility of methane leaks and emissions and we have a 50-year history of safely managing the oil and gas industry,” Graham Currie, executive director of corporate affairs for the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission, said by email when asked for comment on the Waterloo report that estimates 10 per cent of wells in B.C. leak.

“We know total GHG emissions from these wells are less than one per cent of GHG emissions from the upstream oil and gas sector.”

Currie does say the commission “is currently working on new industry standards — part of the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) — to deal with these issues in the design phase of new wells.”

Jackson and Dusseault agree it is important to keep the risks in perspective. Dusseault suggested that more methane gas is coming out of the hind end of the five million cattle in Alberta, which are a significant source of greenhouse gas, than from the leaking wells in the province.

But the engineers also say well leaks “remain poorly quantified.” They have been calling for more accountability and monitoring.

Some jurisdictions are stepping up inspection of abandoned wells. The Quebec government announced plans in October to assess the 700 old wells there within the next three years. In Alberta, the Alberta Energy Regulator issued a directive two years ago requiring energy companies to inspect the hundreds of old wells near existing or planned developments, and reassess them at least once every 10 years.

But with more than 160,000 abandoned wells in Canada, there is a long way to go, and Dusseault and Jackson predict the problem “will likely only become worse with time.”

 

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