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New project to monitor oil and gas impact on B.C. groundwater

Peter Caulfield
New project to monitor oil and gas impact on B.C. groundwater
ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT RESEARCH INITIATIVE — Geoscience BC, the BC Oil and Gas Commission, the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University and the University of Calgary are collaborating on a research project to install 30 new groundwater monitoring wells in the Peace Region in northeast B.C.

The BC Oil and Gas Commission (BCOG), Geoscience BC, the University of British Columbia (UBC), Simon Fraser University and the University of Calgary are collaborating on a research project to install 30 new groundwater monitoring wells in the Peace Region in northeast B.C. 

In an announcement, BCOG commissioner Paul Jeakins said, “Data from these new research groundwater monitoring wells will provide more information to our specialists and help strengthen the commission’s oversight of the oil and gas industry.”

Because the potential impact on groundwater from energy resource development is controversial, scientifically-based answers to the many questions related to the industry are needed, Jenkins said.

“In particular, more information is needed on groundwater conditions in areas of resource development in B.C., including levels of methane and other hydrocarbons close to oil and gas wells,” he said.

The first eight monitoring wells will be installed in August. 

The field program will continue in 2019; more wells will be drilled in the spring of that year and completed by the fall. The program is expected to be completed by spring 2020. 

Combined with a sampling program, the monitoring project will look for the presence of methane in northeast B.C. groundwater and, if any is found, determine how much there is, where it comes from and how close it is to oil and gas development. 

The wells are expected to operate for several decades.

There is no legislative or statutory requirement to install the monitoring wells, said Phil Rygg, BCOG spokesman.

“They are being installed as part of a research project of the Energy and Environment Research Initiative in UBC’s Faculty of Science,” Rygg said.

There are about 225 oil and gas companies operating in northeast B.C. at the moment.

In 2016, 356 wells were drilled in the province (most of these in northeast B.C.); 621 in 2017; and 136 so far in 2018. 

“We don’t expect the monitoring research project will affect the rate of installation of new oil and gas wells,” said Rygg.

Oil and gas operators in B.C. operate under the regulatory framework of the Oil and Gas Activities Act, which provides for prevention, mitigation and monitoring regulatory requirements pertaining to environmental protection.

Aaron Cahill, director of the Energy and Environment Research Initiative in the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at UBC, said methane is found naturally at low levels in nearly all groundwater.

“By itself it is not a problem, as it causes no harm to humans or plants,” said Cahill. “However, if natural gas, which is primarily methane, leaks into groundwater at higher levels than would be found naturally, it could cause an explosion. It could also react with natural bacteria in the groundwater to reduce groundwater quality.”

Because oil and gas development is complex and involves a multiplicity of different steps and processes, there are many opportunities for gas to leak into the environment, Cahill said.

“Despite all of the regulations and careful engineering practices that can minimize or prevent contamination, things can still go wrong sometimes,” he said.

Most potential problems take place at the surface and involve spills or land disturbance.

“These types of incidents are reasonably well understood and can be easily monitored for and taken care of,” Cahill said.

But leaks of natural gas in the ground are also a serious risk to groundwater and the environment and regulators know much less about them. 

“That’s why there is a lot of research on this being undertaken now, including by our research group,” Cahill said.

There are at least two different ways to sample groundwater.

Monitoring wells of the type that are being installed in B.C. are the only way to determine accurately what is in groundwater and what might be happening to it, Cahill said.

Or, instead of drilling new wells, existing domestic wells that are used by households and farmers could be deployed.

“They are cost-effective and rapid, but they’re not scientific instruments and they’re not always where you want them to be,” said Cahill.

It’s time such a monitoring project was undertaken in B.C., Cahill added.

“Alberta has a comprehensive monitoring system, called the Groundwater Observation Well Network, or GOWN, for short,” he said. “B.C. hasn’t had a dedicated network so far, so the monitoring well project is a good first step.”

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