An 11-month investigation into an Alberta drilling mishap has confirmed that hydraulic fracturing (fracking) poses a unique fluid spill risk and prompted regulatory steps to control the danger.
The province’s Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB), which conducted the inquiry, calls the hazard “communication.” The word is used to describe a dramatic subterranean event that the case showed can happen when horizontal wells make multiple injections of fluids at pressures of 10,000 pounds per square inch (psi) or more to break flow channels for natural gas, liquid byproducts or oil into dense rock.
The man-made cracks can reach older wells and break through their walls. The force exerted by fracking can then drive the fluid employed in the process upwards for more than a mile and out onto the ground. The investigation determined that the accident would not have happened if the company involved had followed its own rules for fracking.
The investigation report says that on a chilly day in mid-January Midway Energy Ltd. fracked a geological formation 1.8 kilometers (1.1 miles) with a blend of diesel oil and water beneath a farming, country-residential and recreational area about halfway between Calgary and Edmonton near the town of Innisfail.
The closest that Midway’s horizontal bore came to a vertical producing oil well owned by Wild Stream Exploration Inc. was 129 meters (422 feet). But a passer-by spotted a dark stain on the snow around Wild Stream’s rocking-horse pump jack, stopped, took a close look, and reported the mess over an emergency telephone number posted at the site.
The fluids were from Midway’s fracturing operation. Although the material took about an hour and three-quarters to break through into Wild Stream’s well bore, the pressure was still strong enough to overwhelm Wild Stream’s production hardware.
Within an hour, a Wild Stream oil field operator reached the spot and began taking action. Within three hours, an ERCB inspector was on the scene. Within 72 hours industrial-strength, truck-mounted vacuum cleaners sucked up 68 cubic meters (428 barrels) of fluid and 1,010 tons of soil and snow then carted the sludge off to regional waste disposal sites.
The companies, provincial agencies and local government authorities also began monitoring potential effects of a mist of industrial fluids that winter breezes blew into a nearby grove of 75 to 100 trees. Altogether, the underground accident affected a rectangular area on the land surface about 225 meters (736 feet) long and 200 meters (654 feet) wide.
The ERCB investigation concluded, “The incident did not impact any member of the public, wildlife, livestock, ground water or surface water bodies.” Nor has further monitoring and testing detected any lasting damage to the trees or contamination of eight water wells examined within 1.3 kilometers (eight-tenths of a mile) of the spill, the board said in an inquiry report dated Dec. 12.
Both companies have changed owners since the mishap. Midway was taken over by Whitecap Resources Inc. for C$550 million. Crescent Point Energy Corp. bought Wild Stream for C$770 million.
The ERCB determined that even before the takeovers, Midway’s internal operations manual included guidelines for fracking that would have prevented the spill if the company had followed its own rules. Management of the firm’s new owner, Whitecap, has assured that its standard operating procedures rule out a repeat of the mishap.
But the worst fear of the industry and its regulators is that fear, alarm and hardcore resistance to fracking will spread from the United States into Canada, slowing use of the technology and eroding benefits ranging from corporate profits and energy supply development to increasing provincial government royalty revenues.
Well before completing its investigation, Midway was directed to post a narrative of the accident and a list of its lessons on a public Internet site maintained by the industry safety and training agency Enform. The ERCB rapidly fired off a bulletin across the industry reminding companies of board expectations that should have prevented the Innisfail accident, even though there was no special regulation in force at the time to stop mistakes liable to cause subsurface communication caused by hydraulic fracturing.
Long-standing Alberta general regulatory standards call for companies at all times to maintain well control; assess risks; perform technical modeling before doing underground work; identify all well bores liable to be affected by hydraulic fracturing; notify their owners; co-operate on accident prevention and immediately inform the ERCB of any mishaps.
As a result of the inquiry, new regulations specifically designed to prevent fracking communication events have been written to spell out requirements for maintaining safe separation distances between new and old wells. The scheme, currently in draft form to collect responses before final enactment, also establishes mandatory distances between industrial and water wells, lays out new controls on fracking in coalbed methane wells and creates mandatory procedures for companies to notify one another about potentially hazardous operations near each other’s gas and oil production sites.
Industry and regulatory records show that subterranean formation fracking techniques have been used in 171,000 Alberta wells since the 1950s and that accidents have been extremely rare for most of the period. Since the advent of the current super-strength version, the technique has been used more than 5,000 times. Over the past year, 21 cases of potentially hazardous underground communication have been detected that included five which caused surface spills, according to the ERCB.
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