Fracking comedy of errors

Posted by Christine, December 22, 2012

Why fracking needs tight regultion, or to be banned entirely:

The Calgary Herald reports on a local well:

On Sept. 22, 2011, workers from Crew Energy and service company GasFrac Energy Services attempted to frack a well in a liquids-rich gas reservoir near Grande Prairie in northern Alberta but what happened could be described as a comedy of errors.

Except – with the heightened awareness of the environmental concerns with fracking – nobody is laughing.

Workers on the well site failed to heed a number of warning signs and inadvertently perforated the well at about 137 metres below surface and delivered high-pressured shots of water, sand and toxic chemicals into the water table rather than the intended gas reservoir more than a kilometre further underground.

The last of seven conclusions in a government regulator’s 19-page report released Thursday cut to the chase.

“Crew and the on-site service company’s personnel did not adequately manage the risks … there were multiple opportunities to recognize that a problem existed, which could have prevented or at least minimized the impact of the hydraulic fracturing operation above the base of groundwater protection,” said the Energy Resources and Conservation Board.

Crew, meanwhile, said it is “embarrassed” about the incident and has made sweeping changes to its well-site monitoring and fracking practices.

It should. Injecting toxic chemicals at shallow depths that could impact the water supply is one of the cardinal sins of fracking.

“There’s no question of our appreciation of the severity of this,” said Rob Morgan, the chief operating officer for Calgary-based Crew. “Pretty much all of the personnel who were involved in this particular circumstance are no longer with the company.”

Hydraulic fracturing involves injecting fluids under pressure into underground rock formations to cause cracks to release natural gas or oil. More than 42 cubic metres of propane used by Crew in its fracking process couldn’t be recovered and remains underground.

The ERCB required Crew to develop and implement a detailed plan to prevent similar incidents occurring again. Crew must also provide to the ERCB the analysis from groundwater monitoring Alberta Environment is conducting on site.

In its own documents to address public concerns on the threats to groundwater, the ERCB states it “has regulations that strictly limit the depth of shallow fracturing, distances to water wells, limit the fracture volumes that can be used and specify the use of non-toxic fracture fluids to ensure groundwater protection.”

Inadvertent or not, Crew violated the regulations. However, its marching orders largely amount to working to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Alberta Environment said monitoring indicates only the lower aquifer, which is not used for water supply, was contaminated with propane and other toxins but a shallower aquifer that’s used for some wells in the sparsely populated area wasn’t affected.

Neither the ERCB nor Alberta Environment intends to fine Crew or GasFrac.

The regulator said such incidents are rare among the 5,000 fracturing operations in Alberta since 2008. Spokesman Darin Barter notes the ERCB’s ability to issue fines is limited and there is a bigger impact from halting production.

“What we’ve found over 75 years when you slow down a company or stop a company from performing their business there is a bottom line impact,” Barter said.

“Although there isn’t fine … the industry becomes safer when we insist the company move forward with action plans.”

In this case, the $5 million Crew spent on the well produced a dry hole.

Technologies to develop unconventional oil and gas, such as fracking, have proliferated across North America recently but have proved controversial. Fracking has been linked to groundwater contamination and causing small earthquakes.

This month the ERCB released a draft directive to address subsurface issues around fracking and invited public comments in its review. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers has voluntary guidelines for its members that urge using additives with the least environmental risks, protection of groundwater, and disclosure of fracking fluids.

Crew, a mid-sized oil and gas producer, acquired the well in its takeover of Caltex Energy in July 2011 and said the operations were being integrated when the incident occurred. Morgan acknowledged that “we’re embarrassed that it came under the Crew name and obviously very sorry.”

Last week, the ERCB concluded a well blowout near Innisfail last January that spewed 500 barrels of oily liquid over a field was caused by a company fracking a nearby well. It said “communication” between a well fracked by Midway Energy and a nearby well operated by Wild Stream Exploration caused the blowout.

No enforcement order was issued because the action didn’t violate regulations in place at the time.

Barter said the problem at Crew’s well was that people misread or ignored pressure gauges or other indicators that signalled something was wrong.

“There is no amount of regulation that can overcome human error,” he said.

True, but at least some fine from the government could reinforce the safety messages from the top executives to the bottom line.

Stephen Ewart is a Calgary Herald columnist

© Copyright (c) The Calgary Herald

Recent Headlines