“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.
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. The B.C. Oil and Gas Commission will not elaborate except to say it “likely entailed much more than just repairing a leak.”
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 the 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 leakage 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 can also 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 like Fortier are anything but convinced.
“The solution is to stop drilling wells,” says Fortier, of the Collectif Moratoire Alternatives Vigilance Intervention.
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 mid-October an “action plan” to step up inspections and work with Fortier’s group to locate and assess the wells that are concentrated along the St. Lawrence River.
Many are in forested areas, but Fortier says some were drilled in Lake Pierre, where the St. Lawrence River widens and boaters report seeing gas bubbling to the surface.
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 one report done for Alberta’s energy regulator. It predicted 10 per cent of abandonments that use “bridge plugs” may fail in the decades and centuries ahead.
Geotechnical and groundwater specialists, who assessed the environmental impacts of shale gas fracking for the federal government, also pointed to leakage as a “long-recognized yet unresolved problem.”
They say oil and gas 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, says there is an “ethical imperative to avoid passing on the responsibility for well maintenance and impact monitoring to future generations.”
It advocated a “go-slow” approach to shale gas fracking, in part because of the leakage problem dogging the industry.
Quebec and the Maritime provinces have put the brakes on fracking but “slow” is not a word often associated with the operations underway in the forests of 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 as he criticized Nova Scotians for banning fracking. There has not been “a single case” of drinkable water contamination, Oliver said. “So the record is long, it’s clear, it’s unambiguous and it’s unblemished.”
Researchers say not so fast.
One reason few problems have surfaced, they say, is because little effort is made to find them.
“Evidence is critical,” says Richard Jackson, an engineer and groundwater expert at Ontario-based Geofirma Engineering Ltd. and co-author of the University of Waterloo report.
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.
It’s like standing by your plumbing at home and hitting it with a hammer
But this is “most likely only part of the gas that is migrating” because “subsurface emissions remain unquantified,” say Jackson and his colleague Maurice Dusseault at Waterloo.
Geologist Karlis Muehlenbachs, at the University of Alberta, has been sampling the gas on the move.
He fingerprints gas for operators trying to pinpoint and repair leaks and says “brand new multi-frack shale gas wells are having the same kind of problems as the old conventional wells.”
“None of which should come as much of a surprise,” says Muehlenbachs, noting how fracking wells are punctured with small explosives so water can be injected under intense pressure deep underground to fracture or shatter rock. “It’s like standing by your plumbing at home and hitting it with a hammer.”
Muehlenbachs, like researchers in the U.S., has found leaks tend to originate in gas beds that wells cut through on the way down to deeper oil and gas zones. About 75 per cent of the leaks he’s tested on B.C. fracking wells were partway down the wellbores.
Muehlenbachs’s group has also shown how gas liberated by oil and gas wells in Alberta and Saskatchewan can seep through the ground – findings that bolster assertions by some landowners that oil and gas operations are contaminating their well water.
In one long-running battle, 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. In the latest development, a judge ruled in November that Ernst can sue the Alberta government for not properly investigating her concerns that Encana contaminated 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 does acknowledge “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. “It’s not cyanide,” says Herald.
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 said. “In addition, they account for less than 0.15 per cent of B.C.’s total GHG emissions.”
Currie does seem to suggest there is room for improvement, saying 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 in an interview 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 leakages “remain poorly quantified,” especially underground leaks.
They have been calling for more accountability and monitoring, saying “practices in the field do not necessarily match those specified” in the industry’s recommended best practices and engineering plans.
And they say much of the contamination may be “latent” and not apparent during the operating life of wells. Operators are required to check for leakage when wells are plugged and abandoned, but Jackson and Dusseault say cement seals and plugs can corrode and decay, resulting in leakage years and decades later.
Some jurisdictions are stepping up inspection of abandoned wells. The Quebec government announced plans in October to assess the 700 old wells in that province within the next three years. And after old leaking wells started turning up in new subdivisions and developments in Alberta, the Alberta Energy Regulator issued a directive two years ago that requires 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.”
The evidence suggests “leakage as the result of abandonment failure will significantly increase” in coming decades, it says, and “with it gas leakage problems.”
By the numbers
– 10 per cent of the 24,000 active and suspended wells in British Columbia leak. Some “super-emitters” have pumped out large amounts of methane, with one leaky well in northeastern B.C. costing $8 million to repair.
– Many of Saskatchewan’s 90,000 wells are concentrated in the Lloydminster area, where 20 per cent of wells leak gas into the air or ground.
– Alberta has close to 450,000 wells and 27,000 well leaks have been reported to government regulators since 1971.
– 20 per cent of the 50,000 oil and gas wells in Ontario have “minor vent flows.”
– 18 of the 28 shale-gas wells in Quebec have “minor leaks.” Quebec also has 900 older wells, many of which are leaking gas.
– Two of 29 producing wells in a gas field in New Brunswick have measurable leaks.
Source: University of Waterloo, provincial governments, CMAVI