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Alberta Failing on Risk From Leaking Oil and Gas Wells, Says Expert

AER’s former chief environmental scientist says regulator can’t deliver on mandate to protect health and safety.

Andrew Nikiforuk 4 Jul

Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about the energy industry for two decades and is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Find his previous stories here.

The author of a unpublished report on leaking abandoned oil and gas wells in Alberta’s cities and towns says the province’s regulator doesn’t have the expertise to deal with the growing public health and safety issues in a timely manner.

“The expertise to assess the health risk of abandoned wells really doesn’t exist in house,” charged Monique Dube, former chief environmental scientist with the Alberta Energy Regulator and one of the authors of a report on the toxicity of abandoned wells in Alberta.

A report for Natural Resources Canada has described methane leakage from active or abandoned wells as “ a serious threat to the environment and public safety” with the risk of “irreversible contamination of freshwater aquifers, accumulation of explosive gases within and around residences and other structures and contribution to greenhouse gases.”

In addition repair and clean up of leaking wells can be prohibitively expensive, which explains why the issue has become an explosive one throughout western Canada and even Quebec.

The AER report overseen by Dube found that 10 per cent of Alberta’s 1,500 abandoned oil and gas wells in urban areas are leaking methane and in some cases at levels that create the risk of health damage and explosions.

The unpublished study by the Alberta Energy Regulator, obtained by The Tyee, identified 335 urban wells recently tested by industry that were “believed to be in close proximity to surface developments (houses, airports, business, etc.).”

The report, completed in November, recommended that Alberta Health assess the health and public safety risks of six wells in particular that exceeded a “life-threatening” threshold of 10,000 parts per million.

Alberta Health says it is reviewing the wells, but no action has been taken.

Dube, who was fired “without cause” in March by the AER, said the response to the risks has been too slow.

“At the end of the day we have wells leaking at acute levels,” she said.

“The first question is how many years has it taken to measure leaks from 1,500 known urban wells,” Dube added. “Surely we should be turning up the engines. It has taken far too long. These are real threats. “

The report also noted that another 1,165 abandoned wells in cities and towns haven’t been assessed yet for methane leaks.

The province has another 170,000 abandoned oil and gas wells in rural areas. The report estimates that 17,000 of them are leaking and 3,400 at levels that pose risks to any nearby residents.

“At this time it is not known what percentage of wells in rural Alberta would be in proximity to surface development or human receptors,” said the report.

But methane, which can be highly explosive in concentrations ranging from five to 15 per cent, isn’t the only problem. The gas from leaking wells also travels with highly toxic hydrocarbons such as benzene and xylene.

Dube said there is no data on those risks from leaking wells.

The threats from leaking abandoned wells has been known for a long time and assessing the public health risk should take hours, not months or years, she said.

“It is basic monitoring and toxicology. It is easy to measure and monitor hydrocarbons and set up notification procedures.”

According to AER documents Dube was hired in 2015 as the agency’s first chief environmental scientist with the goal of “finding opportunities to improve the AER’s environmental performance.”

After a series of scandals engulfed its predecessor, the Energy Resources Conservation Board, the Alberta government introduced new legislation in 2012 to rebrand the organization as the Alberta Energy Regulator and “streamline” its operation.

The new legislation eliminated a previous mandate to operate in the public interest and made the agency almost entirely dependent on industry funding.

The new agency also assumed duties on well reclamation previously administered by Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development. The reorganization was completed in 2015.

But Dube said Alberta Energy Regulators still hasn’t developed a clear role in the protection of the environment and public health.

“Why doesn’t the AER have a handle on what constitutes a real risk in terms of toxicology and environmental exposure from abandoned wells? Why has it taken so long, and why don’t we acquire the expertise to rapidly access the risks of these liabilities and move on them quickly?”

Effectively managing environmental liabilities “seems to be a competency we need to tool up on in this province,” concluded Dube in an interview.

Dube says she has no idea why the AER fired her.

“There were only two toxicologists at the AER and I was one of them,” she said. Now there is only one toxicologist for an agency that deals with thousands of toxic products used by the oil and gas industry.

Métis groups dealing with the impacts of oil sand development south of Fort McMurray complained about her abrupt departure.

“The AER is conflicted,” said Gail Gallupe, president of the McMurray Métis. “Its dual mandate to both grow the industry and protect the environment means having to choose one over the other. With Dr. Monique Dube as Chief Environment Scientist, we knew that we had a serious voice for the environment within the AER,”

Ryan Bartlett, team leader of strategic communications for the AER, refuted Dube’s claims and said that “the AER staff possess highly technical expertise and understanding of leaking wells. This expertise includes environmental science, toxicology, and ecology.”

He added that the board had hired a new chief scientist, Dr. Scott Hecbert, as of July 4.

In response to Tyee questions about health risk assessment for leaking wells in urban areas Bartlett noted that such “assessments fall under the jurisdiction of Alberta Health, therefore the AER will not be developing a health risk assessment related to leaking wells.”*

Daryl Bennett, a director of the Alberta Surface Rights Federation, a group that represents landowners, said Dube’s report reflected the Alberta government’s messy approach to leaking wells.

While most North American jurisdictions require companies to clean up and restore non-producing oil and gas wells in a timely fashion, Alberta allows companies to put off cleanup indefinitely.

As a result the province has another 90,000 inactive wells that are no longer producing oil or gas that have not been properly sealed and abandoned. Many are leaking and pose threats to the public or environment. At the same time the number of wells being orphaned by bankrupt oil and gas companies has grown from hundreds to thousands while the liabilities now stand in excess of $30 billion.

Leaking wells in Alberta and other jurisdictions have contaminated groundwater, caused explosions, devalued agricultural land and in one recent case forced the demolition of homes outside of Edmonton.

“These guys at the AER really don’t have a clue what they are doing,” said Bennett, who works as an advocate for landowners. “They are just making things up as they go along. They don’t have the tools in the toolbox they need. We’ve also got the fox guarding the henhouse.”

The current chair of the AER is Gerry Protti, a former lobbyist for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

Bennett said the numbers in Dube’s report are conservative.

In addition to 170,000 known abandoned wells, there are another 38,000 wells that were exempt from plugging and clean-up because they were abandoned before 1964.

Bennett said those wells could present a future risk.

“This is going to become a huge issue if the industry starts fracking again to any extent. The AER has acknowledged a number of ‘inter-wellbore communication’ events where the pressure from fracking on new wells causes nearby abandoned wells to blow their casing and plugs and to start leaking.”

The Alberta Energy Regulator says its role is to ensure “the safe, efficient, orderly, and environmentally responsible development of energy resources.”

But Bennett said his work on leaky well sites in rural Alberta left him with little confidence in the regulator.

“It is clear that AER is putting its mandate of facilitating industry development ahead of the environment,” he said.

*Story updated July 8.  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Environment

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