When B.C.’s Oil and Gas Commission identified significant methane leaks from hundreds of gas wells in 2013, the energy regulator withheld that information from BC Liberal politicians.
Members of the former Christy Clark government wrongly claimed that B.C. wells didn’t leak and that the province’s shale gas industry was “clean.”
The report, which looked only at the Jean Marie formation north of Fort Nelson, concluded that “there may be as many as 235 instances of visible gas migration and 900 total instances of gas migration in the north zone of B.C.”
Gas migration, a chronic and costly liability in the oil and gas industry and the subject of major petroleum textbooks, refers to steady or intermittent gas leaks that can be caused by the drilling, fracking or even cementing of wellbores which create pathways for leakage to the surface.
The leaking methane can travel along fractures or faults into soils, the atmosphere or aquifers which can absorb the gas and carry the contaminated water off to other areas.
(One recent study confirmed that methane leaks from shale gas wells can travel great distances in aquifers and that regulators aren’t doing enough to monitor the risks to climate change or water.)
The 2013 commission report also admitted that the agency did not have “access to good research related to the effect of gas migration on aquifers in order to inform decision-making”— a deficit that, say critics, the commission has yet to correct.
Leakage rates from well sites can be so prolific that they make the impact of methane drilling and fracking as dirty as mining coal in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
Yet just four months after the report confirmed significant leakage problems in just one zone of production, then deputy premier Rich Coleman wrongly claimed that oil and gas wells in British Columbia didn’t leak methane.
In response to a national report on hydraulic fracturing that characterized shale gas fracking as an uncontrolled science experiment and called for more action on the liability of leaking wells, Coleman told the Vancouver Sun that he didn’t agree with the expert panel’s findings.
“The reality is we’ve been doing this for over 50 years, we’ve never had a contamination from a drill, we’ve never had a drill stem leak or fail. We do it as well or better than anybody else in the word.”
At the time the nation’s top hydrogeologist John Cherry and one of North America’s fracking experts, Anthony Ingraffea, both criticized Coleman for making statements that had no basis in science or geology.
When asked why the commission didn’t correct Coleman’s remarks at the time, Phil Rygg, commission director of public and corporate relations, replied with this explanation: “Initially, this was an internal report to allow the commission to better understand the issue of gas migration, plan next steps for data gathering and potential mitigation efforts…. As noted, this was an internal report at the time and was not provided to politicians.”
The commission made the 2013 report public just hours after The Tyee said it had obtained a copy and requested comments on its findings on Nov. 21.
This marks the second time this fall the commission has released information bulletins saying it is taking action on identified problems. But in each case it released the bulletins only after being pressed for information by journalists.
“It is outrageous that information that ought to be public is being withheld by the commission until the 11th hour and 59th minute and only when these documents have been leaked or obtained by the press,” said investigative reporter Ben Parfitt.
Parfitt, who has been tracking the building of illegal dams by the industry for hydraulic fracturing, said he would be taking the matter up with the province’s Information and Privacy Commissioner.
Ingraffea said the report was just another confirmation of what industry has known for decades: that wells leak and leak badly over time.
“What do they expect from underground operations such as these, total obedience to design intent? Why are operators and regulators around the world seemingly surprised when things go wrong underground, and in so many ways, and so often?” Ingraffea said.
The scale of the leakage from BC’s 26,000 oil and gas wells is immense, poorly quantified and highly under-reported. It has implications for the shale gas industry as well as for repeated claims made by LNG proponents, including the current NDP government, that methane from northeastern B.C. is “clean.”
The commission has an incomplete picture on well leakage. The industry wasn’t required to report leaks until 1995 and only then prior to abandonment of a well.
In 2010 the commission required companies to check for leaks after the drilling of a well and during routine maintenance. As a result of this requirement, the commission documented a sharp increase in reported leakage.
In addition to limited historic data, companies conducting leakage tests are not required to report negative results to the commission.
That means researchers don’t know with certainty how many of the province’s 26,000 wells have actually been tested.
Josh Wisen, a master’s student at Université du Québec à Chicoutimi, recently calculated in a paper for an Ottawa conference — based on limited commission data, that the industry drilled 4,017 wells since 2010 and that 761 are leaking — a failure rate of 19 per cent.
The majority of the leaks came from the surface casing vents at the top of the well (not a topic covered by the 2013 report) while seven per cent came from gas migration. Another three per cent came from liquid leaks to the surface.
According to the commission, “gas migration has been reported to be associated with 144 wells in northeast B.C.” and that three of the leaking well sites “have been required to develop and implement a groundwater monitoring program to support the risk assessment.”
But the regulator, which is funded by industry, doesn’t have any idea how many older abandoned wells are leaking.
It recently commissioned an aerial survey to test equipment to find methane leakage from decommissioned wells — nearly four years after the 2013 report recommended that “it should consider prioritizing the abandonment of wells with gas migration or surface casing vent flows.”
According to the 2013 report, there is no timeline to abandon an inactive well in B.C., which means it can sit on the landscape leaking methane into groundwater or the atmosphere indefinitely.
Although LNG proponents still characterize shale gas production as “clean” and without methane leakage or groundwater contamination, field observations by the David Suzuki Foundation suggest that many leaky wells are not appearing in the B.C. database.
Their recent mobile survey study of natural gas developments in northeastern B.C. found that nearly 50 per cent of active wells spewed detectable amounts of methane.
The peer-reviewed study which appeared in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussions, estimated that methane emissions from B.C.’s shale gas basins are now at least 2.5 times higher than provincial government estimates.
That makes the oil and gas sector the largest source of climate pollution in B.C., a greater source of pollution than commercial transportation.
In Alberta the under-reporting of methane emissions — now a key driver of climate change, has been equally dramatic.
Airborne measurements of methane emissions from oil and gas infrastructure around Red Deer and Lloydminster, which is an area with a documented history of severe gas migration problems, found that that the Red Deer emissions were 17 times greater than what regulators estimated based on ground reporting, and four times greater than regulatory estimates for the Lloydminster region.
Uncertainty about the magnitude of methane emissions from leaking wells makes it difficult for federal and provincial regulators to identify and set up programs to control methane emissions, a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.
But the findings of the Alberta study clearly suggest that actual methane emissions from the upstream oil and gas sector (excluding mined oil sands) are likely to be at least 25 to 50 per cent greater than estimated.
That finding means that belated proposals to cut methane emissions by 45 per cent are inadequate due to chronic underestimation of the real problem.
Karlis Muelenbachs, a pioneer in tracking stray gases from wellbores and a professor at the University of Alberta, called the 2013 “internal” OGC report “sound” but incomplete.
“I do wonder why it only looks at ground migration and not the much more easily documented surface casing vent (SCV) flow),” Muelenbachs said. “I have always thought that wherever one sees [gas migration] one probably would also see SCV, and the question is if both gases have the same source. As mentioned in the report they do not.”
Muelenbachs added that the report “underestimates the total threat but I would expect a lot of sugar coating to have the report taken to management.”
Gilles Wendling, a hydrogeologist who has studied changes to groundwater quality in northeastern B.C., said the 2013 report raised questions and underscored how poorly the province has been monitoring groundwater. “How many leaky wells weren’t repaired?” Wendling said in an email. “The majority of oil and gas well in B.C. were drilled before 2008 (some 19,000) and a large number (about 8,000) were drilled before 1995.”
Wendling said all the wellbores could potentially leak, but how many leak won’t be known until they are tested. “This could be difficult to do for older decommissioned wells, which have been buried below the surface for more than 20 years. For all of B.C. we need to know which wellbores have been tested for leakage, how they have been tested, and when they were tested,” he said.
Wendling added that it was “fallacy" for the 2013 report to conclude that “there is no reason to expect that any of the GM wells have had a negative impact on any domestic source of groundwater as none of the GM wells are in close proximity to domestic water wells.”
Stating that there is no reason to believe “there has been impact because it was not monitored and/or because of the absence of wells does not prove there has been no negative impact,” he said.
Groundwater monitoring conducted by the province in northeastern B.C. remains incredibly poor. Wendling said only seven monitoring wells are in operation in the region.
In 2016 Wendling submitted a report to the Peace River Regional District and Tribal 8 Association documenting substantial changes to groundwater quality in the region over time.
Based on thousands of surface and groundwater samples — some dating back to 1943, Wendling found “an increasing presence of sodium and sulfate in surface water (after 2000), in groundwater (after 2000), and in spring water (after 2011).”
An observed increase in barium in groundwater could be due to “intense drilling activity in the region.”
But Wendling’s report adds that “the lack of information on water, both on quality and quantity prior to the 1970s, has prevented the definition of the baseline before human activities started having a footprint both at the surface and in the subsurface.”