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Alberta Fluid Spill Spooks Authorities

It was brief and caused no injuries or damage, but the accident set off alarms among regulators, production companies and field contractors

A fountain of gas and oilfield fluid that left a dark streak on a central Alberta snowbank has prompted provincial authorities to warn industry against staining its record with fracking technology imported from the United States.

The eruption was brief, injured no one, did no environmental damage and was promptly mopped up before penetrating the frozen ground. But the accident set off alarms among regulators, production companies and field contractors because the location was in a highly visible industry operations area at a well half-way between Edmonton and Calgary near Innisfail, a farm, country-residential and suburban commuter center.

Alberta's Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) circulated a bulletin stating that it "fully expects" holders of its drilling licenses "to maintain well control at all times so as not to impact the environment, public safety, and efficient recovery of the resource, and to prevent adverse effects on offset energy wellbores."

The accident was a rare case of the most dramatic side-effect yet seen in Canada's chief gas- and oil-producing jurisdiction from hydraulic fluid fracturing operations: "unintended interwell communication." The phrase is petroleum engineering-speak for fracks, blasting new flow channels across dense geological formations from horizontal wells, breaking into older vertical gas and oil bores.

The imported fracking technology is so powerful that the unwanted underground breakthroughs can drive gas- and oilfield materials more than a mile up to the surface and into the air as gusher- or blowout-like showers of pollution.

In Alberta the method, developed for shale gas in the U.S., is coming into increasingly widespread use for production of tight oil and liquids-rich gas.

The technology is being heavily deployed to open untapped zones of old fields that date back half a century or more to the industry's birth in former bush or ranching areas that have become hotbeds of population growth and real estate development. Vigorous horizontal drilling and fracking operations have been under way at locations well within commuting distance from affluent country residential districts to the industry's home base in downtown Calgary and the province's political capital of Edmonton.

To date, long-established ERCB regulations and policing as well as popular familiarity with drilling operations have prevented the new techniques from igniting Alberta versions of environmental fears and protests across the U.S. from Wyoming to New York State. But the Innisfail well-fluid shower coincided with political warm-ups for an Alberta election expected this spring that include a winter tour by Premier Alison Redford and her cabinet, with all the ministers fanning out across the province to all communities of any significant size.

The eruption and stain on the snow prompted a country landowner organization -- the Alberta Surface Rights Group, led by retired oil and gas field engineer Don Bester -- to call on provincial authorities to impose a moratorium against hydraulic fracking.

The risk is greater than just running afoul of old wellbores, the group said. "Every professional geologist knows there are naturally occurring fractures in every formation and the potential for a high-pressure frack to propagate through this natural fracture system and introduce contaminants of fracking fluid to a fresh water aquifer is inevitable."

In Alberta especially, the group added "there is a definite potential to frack and cause a suspended, producing or abandoned wellbore to blow out that is classified as high in hydrogen sulfide," a lethal impurity that occurs in hazardous volumes in about 30% of the province's gas deposits and is also frequently encountered in oil zones.

Neither the provincial energy ministry nor the ERCB made any move to call a halt to fracking. It was pointed out that such operations are routine in Alberta, decades-old provincial regulations on handling and disposing of gas- and oilfield fluids are elaborate and strict, and the newer operations are only higher-powered versions of familiar methods.

But the board's bulletin urged the industry to recognize the danger of surprise leaks and take preventive steps. Producers and field contractors were warned to step up use of techniques for assessing risks of unwanted underground encounters between new and old production systems.

The requests were accompanied by reminders that current regulations already enable the ERCB to take action, up to and including orders to halt operations, if sloppy conduct is discovered. The new generation of high-powered fluid fracking is also under review as part of board work on a planned "unconventional oil and gas regulatory framework" that is intended to ensure Alberta regulation is keeping up to evolving gas- and oilfield technology, the industry was also reminded.

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