Imperial bought up the Beaudry home and four neighbouring houses. Then it demolished them to make way for a drill rig. Workers bored down a kilometre last year, scoured out the old well, and then poured in cement to try plugging the leak.
Millions of dollars later, gas is still bubbling up and the leak is worse now than when they started.
“Clearly we are not satisfied with this re-abandonment attempt,” says Chris Sieben, a senior engineer at Imperial. “It did not go as planned.”
Calmar is “the poster boy” for problems surfacing as urban development encroaches on old oil and gas fields, says Richard Jackson, co-author of a recent University of Waterloo report that suggests thousands of the 550,000 oil and gas wells across Canada leak.
And “it’s been an absolute nightmare” for Ralph Olson, who has watched the Calmar saga unfold outside his dining room window.
Six months after Olson and his wife moved into the new subdivision, the old leaking well was uncovered.
The Olson home was deemed too far from the well to qualify for a buyout from Imperial. They’ve seen neighbours and close friends move away and watched Imperial demolish the five homes to make way for the drill rig.
The community had been oblivious to the well until workers digging in a schoolyard hit old pipes in late 2007. The discovery led to Imperial, which was called in to help check for and track down other wells in Calmar.
In addition to the old gas well in a schoolyard, it found one under a community park and the one on Evergreen Crescent. Imperial inherited the wells through a merger with Texaco in 1989.
Andy Biblow, project manager for Imperial’s Calmar project, says the leaks were small and posed no threat to people or the environment. But the wells had “wellbore integrity issues” and needed to be brought in line with Alberta’s rules that say abandoned wells must be “incapable of flow.”
After plugging the wells at the school and park, Imperial moved on to the well on Evergreen Crescent, which proved a much bigger challenge.
It took years to settle with some of the homeowners, who argued that their homes were worth up to $75,000 more than Imperial was offering. By the summer of 2013 the demolitions were complete and the drill rig rumbled down the street.
“It was a brutal summer,” Olson says of the noise and dust kicked up by the work crews. At one point he looked out to see portable toilets “right underneath my dining room window.” The company moved them after he complained.
The well was leaking methane gas, which seeps out of many oil and gas wells with faulty seals, plugs and well casings. Old wells are especially problematic as they were abandoned to laxer standards — crews were known to stuff everything from old boots to overalls down the wells and then dump in a bucket or two of cement.
All of which can lead to “abandonment failure” and leaks of methane and other gases escaping from layers of rock that the wells slice through.
Sieben, Imperial’s conventional reservoir and subsurface engineering supervisor, says the first step in a “reabandonment” is to install a new wellhead, then “hot tap” the well so a crew can work on it. The old well plugs are drilled out and equipment is lowered down to zero in on the source of gas.
Sieben says a “perf and squeeze” can usually solve the problem. This entails setting off small charges of solid rocket propellant to strategically perforate holes in the casing lining the well. Then cement is squeezed through the holes to fill gaps and stop the leak. Then comes a “bubble test” to see if it worked. If it did, the well is cut and capped at least a metre underground and the site is restored.
“Every well is unique,” says Sieben, noting the success rate is not 100 per cent.
In Calmar, cement casing did not extend to the bottom of the wells so the repair entailed plugging up the wells with cement to a depth of 1,000 metres.
On Evergreen Crescent the crew “had issues” when it poured the cement into the well, says Sieben: “One of the (geological) zones that was open to the wellbore basically drank some of the cement.”
The engineers say removing the existing barriers and restrictions in the well may have also opened up other fissures. “Until we’re able to actually crawl down with our eyes and see what happens subsurface — which we can’t do — it is hard to tell what the real cause is,” says Biblow.
But he says the well is now emitting more gas than when it was found in 2008.
“It is greater today than it was before,” says Biblow. About 2.3 cubic metres of methane a day is now escaping from the well — about as much as comes out the hind end of three cows, he says. It is “not hissing” gas but the bubbles are “continuous.”
Imperial is venting the gas to the atmosphere and monitoring the flow before a decision is made on what to do next.
“We would not be able to cut and cap this well in its current state,” says Sieben. He and Biblow say one option may be to bring a drill rig back in and try again. A decision, expected by early next year, will be made in consultation with the Alberta Energy Regulator and the community.
Imperial does not disclose how much it spends on “reabandonments” but leak repairs are said to typically run about $150,000 while complicated jobs have been known to cost as much as $8 million.
After the fiasco in Calmar, Alberta oil companies stepped up testing of wells in and near urban areas. Biblow says three of the 82 wells Imperial has tested are leaking small amounts of gas in parks in Redwater, a small community northeast of Edmonton. Playground swings and slides were removed this fall, making way for a drill rig. By spring Imperial hopes to have the Redwater repairs completed, the wells capped and new playgrounds installed.
In Calmar, the plan is also to turn the gravel work site on Evergreen Crescent into a park. “If it ever happens,” says Michelle, who moved onto the crescent with her husband and three children, taking advantage of house prices that are said to have dropped as much as $40,000 after the leaky well was discovered.
Michelle, who did not want her surname published, said they were aware of the well when they purchased and are not worried about the leak. The real estate deal included a paid vacation when the noisy drill rig bore down on the old well last year.
Many in the community would rather not discuss the leaking well, but Olson would like to see something positive of the fiasco that tore the neighbourhood apart and has left him feeling “stuck, cornered and abused.”
He says there should be much tougher legislation to ensure more homes and buildings do not end up next to leaking wells. He would also like to see a law that requires industry to check all abandoned wells, especially those within a kilometre of where people live and work, for leaks once or twice a year. “Not just when problems arise,” he says.
“Otherwise if they don’t get caught, they won’t do anything,” says Olson.
Concerns over Canada’s abandoned and inactive wells
Alberta has about 155,000 abandoned wells and another 80,000 “inactive” wells that have been temporarily suspended, in some cases for years.
About 40,000 of the inactive wells do not appear to be compliant with suspension requirements that stipulate everything from how often they need to be checked to how the records are kept, says Brenda Cherry, vice-president of closure and liability at the Alberta Energy Regulator that oversees the 450,000 oil and gas wells in the province.
In response to a directive from the agency in 2012, energy companies have checked 387 old wells in and around urban areas over the last two years, says Cherry, who oversees “end of life” activities that entail plugging, cutting and capping wells.
She would not say how many of the wells are leaking, adding it is up to industry to release the information. But she says abandoned wells have been uncovered in some unexpected places, including a shopping mall in Airdrie, north of Calgary, and at Calgary’s expanding international airport.
“The piece that we’re particularly focused on is to ensure the wells are in a safe and secure condition whether they are suspended or abandoned,“ Cherry said in a recent interview.
Provincial auditors in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan have raised concern about the way energy companies have been drilling new wells much faster than they are getting on with the multi-billion-dollar job of abandoning inactive wells.
The companies, which have “perpetual” responsibilities for their wells in the western provinces, do not see inactive wells as liabilities but as valuable assets, says Brad Herald, vice-president of Western Canada operations at the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. He says the intent is to bring them back into production when, and if, energy demand and prices improve.
Herald says the industry is a leader in “looking after closure liability” and will cover the costs of abandoning all wells, including the ones orphaned by defunct companies.
He has no comment on the situation in Quebec, where environmental groups say hundreds of old wells are leaking and taxpayers are liable for the repairs. A Quebec government spokesman had no comment on whether the government would ask industry to pay for the well repairs. “Unfortunately, I have no information about that,” says Nicolas Begin, a media officer with Quebec’s ministry of natural resources.