Brock University study finds oil drilling wastes leaking into Northwest Territories lakes because of poorly built and designed waste disposal and degrading permafrost

Oil drilling wastes, long buried under Canada’s permafrost, leak into the environment by Henry Gass, November 15, 2013, E&E News
For decades, companies exploring for oil and gas in the Arctic’s remote southern reaches have disposed of their drilling waste in the cheapest and most convenient way possible: by digging massive pits to hold the waste and then capping them with frozen permafrost. And for decades, the waste harmlessly sat in the frozen tombs. Then climate change, which scientists say is caused by burning fossil fuels, set in, causing the permafrost to begin melting. In the Mackenzie Delta region of Canada’s Northwest Territories, scientists have discovered unusually high salt levels in some freshwater lakes, and the salinity could be transfiguring the foundation of the local food web. In a study published this month in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers say this is being caused by leakages from the frozen waste pits, known as “sumps.” Joshua Thienpont, lead author of the paper while he was a Ph.D. student at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, said the study should cause companies drilling for oil in areas with rapidly thawing permafrost to reconsider using sumps for waste storage. “We need to be cognizant of the fact that these sumps are not really a permanent containment mechanism in an area of warm permafrost,” said Thienpont, who is now a postdoctoral fellow at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario.

“You’re in a very low chloride area, a very low salt area, and what came out quite clear was that chloride was coming out,” said John Smol, a paleoecologist at Queen’s and Thienpont’s Ph.D. supervisor. Smol said it was important to differentiate between changes in water chemistry that might have been a result of sump leakage or a result of natural permafrost thawing. But he said they found relatively normal salt levels in the lakes near permafrost slumps, compared with those lakes near waste sumps. Smol also said the researchers were unsure whether other chemicals were also leaking into the lakes from the sumps. Pretty much all drilling waste includes potassium chloride to help keep equipment from freezing, but other substances in the waste can vary from company to company, and the specific chemicals are the proprietary knowledge of the company,Smol said. “Different companies probably used different compounds,” he added. “The common thread should’ve been chloride, and that came out. It’s elevated.”

The region could hold as much as 64 billion cubic feet of natural gas, Smol said, and sumps remain the recommended method of waste disposal under federal guidelines for drilling in the Arctic. [Emphasis added]

In prosperous oil patch, drillers turn to water recycling to address drought, waste challenges by Ramit Plushnick-Masti, The Associated Press, November 11, 2013, Calgary Herald
When the rain stopped falling in Texas, the prairie grass yellowed, the soil cracked and oil drillers were confronted with a crisis. After years of easy access to cheap, plentiful water, the land they prized for its vast petroleum wealth was starting to dry up. At first, the drought that took hold a few years ago seemed to threaten the economic boom that arose from hydraulic fracturing, a drilling method that uses huge amounts of high-pressure, chemical-laced water to free oil and natural gas trapped deep in underground rocks. But drillers have found a way to get by with much less water: They recycle it using systems that not long ago they may have eyed with suspicion. “This was a dramatic change to the practices that the industry used for many, many years,” said Paul Schlosberg, co-founder and chief financial officer of Water Rescue Services, the company that runs recycling services for Fasken Oil and Ranch in West Texas, which is now 90 per cent toward its goal of not using any freshwater for fracturing, or “fracking,” as it is commonly known. Before the drought, “water was prevalent, it was cheap and it was taken for granted,” he added.

Just a few years ago, many drillers suspected water recyclers were trying to sell an unproven idea designed to drain money from multimillion dollar businesses. Now the system is helping drillers use less freshwater and dispose of less wastewater. Recycling is rapidly becoming a popular and economic solution for a burgeoning industry. The change is happening so swiftly that regulators are racing to keep up and in some cases taking steps to make it easier for drillers to recycle. Fracking operations require millions of gallons of relatively clean water. Each time a well is drilled, about 20 per cent of the water eventually remerges, but it is jam-packed with contaminants from drilling chemicals and heavy metals picked up when the water hits oil. Until recently, that water was dumped as waste, often into injection wells deep underground. Many companies, each using slightly different technology and methods, are offering ways of reusing that water. Some, like Schlosberg’s Water Rescue Services, statically charge the water to allow particles of waste to separate and fall to the bottom. Those solids are taken to a landfill, leaving more than 95 per cent of the water clean enough to be reused for fracking. Other operators, such as Walton, Ky.-based Pure Stream, offer two technologies — one that cleans water so it can be reused in the oil patch and another more expensive system that renders it clean enough to be dumped into rivers and lakes or used in agriculture.

Todd Ennenga, Pure Stream’s vice-president of business development, said interest in the technology has doubled in the past year alone. Some others tout methods that leave behind no solid waste at all, eliminating the need to transport anything to a landfill. A few companies insist they can frack without any water. “It’s really taken off,” Ennenga said of recycling. Two years ago, he said, most operators were still vetting the different systems. These days, they have a plan and are saying, “We need to do this right now.”

In Texas, the fracking boom began around 2009, just as the state fell into years of drought. Especially hard-hit were South and West Texas, where rock formations have proven to be rich sources of oil and gas. Residents who were told to cut back on lawn watering and car washing grumbled about drillers hogging water supplies. Similar issues have arisen in arid parts of Wyoming, North Dakota, New Mexico and Colorado. Farther east, states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, face different issues. There, water is relatively plentiful but disposal of wastewater has been bureaucratically difficult and expensive, while the sites that can collect it are scarce. States are scrambling to draft regulations for the new recycling systems. In Texas, requests for recycling permits rose from fewer than two a year in 2011 to 30 approved applications in fiscal year 2012. So the Texas Railroad Commission, the agency that oversees oil and gas operations, revamped the rules in March, eliminating the need for drillers to get a permit if they recycle on their own lease or on a third-party’s property. Commission spokeswoman Ramona Nye said in an email that the new rules are designed to “help operators enhance their water conservation efforts” and encourage recycling.

In Ohio, disposing of drilling wastewater has hit some obstacles. Activity at a deep injection well near Youngstown was tied to one in a series of earthquakes, and a former officer of the firm that ran the operation has been indicted in connection with a separate dumping incident that allegedly violated the Clean Water Act. That led to a temporary moratorium on disposal sites in that region, stricter rules and an EPA review. Pennsylvania, meanwhile, has few dumping sites, and operators once paid large sums to haul wastewater to Ohio. Recycling has now become cheaper, and transports to Ohio have dwindled.

Back in Texas, Fasken Oil and Ranch believes it solved many of its early problems with the containment pools, tanks, pipelines and trailers. Within six months, the company expects to reach its goal of using no freshwater in its fracking operations — a feat made possible by combining recycled water with briny water drawn from an aquifer and treated. Then Fasken will start applying the same methods at drilling sites in South Texas and New Mexico, Manager Jimmy Davis said. “We face the same problems,” Davis said. “There’s not an abundance of freshwater.”

Brock University study finds oil drilling wastes leaking into northern lakes by Bob Weber, The Canadian Press, November 8, 2013, Calgary Herald
A recently published study suggests melting permafrost could be allowing oil drilling wastes from buried pits to leak into northern lakes. “It’s just another impact, one of the continually growing cumulative impacts, to these fairly sensitive freshwater ecosystems we have,” co-author Joshua Thienpont of Brock University said Friday. Thienpont and his colleagues wanted to test the ongoing effectiveness of sumps still being used in the Northwest Territories to dispose of oil drilling wastes. Sumps are large pits dug near a wellsite and intended to permanently get rid of wastes such as drilling mud, rock cuttings and drilling fluids, which commonly contain detergents and highly concentrated salt solutions. The sumps — which can contain tens of thousands of cubic metres of waste — are capped with clean material and frozen into place by permafrost. The Mackenzie Delta has at least 150 sumps that date back as far as the mid-1960s. But permafrost in the southern Arctic has been gradually degrading as a result of climate change. In the delta, permafrost has warmed by an average of two degrees over historic levels.

Thienpont looked at 101 lakes in the area. Some were near a sump, some were far away but affected by permafrost slumping and some were unaffected by either. Of the 20 lakes near a sump, many lakes showed high salt levels, Thienpont discovered. “At least four and as many as 15, depending on how you look at it.” Those levels are high enough to change the micro-organisms that live in the lakes and anchor the food chain. The team also looked at bottom sediments in one of the affected lakes to try to pinpoint when the contamination occurred. “In that lake, we found that at the time, or very near the time the sump was built, there was really striking and rapid shift of species known to be tolerant of higher salinity,” Thienpont said. He said some sumps were probably leaching because they were badly built in the first place. But Thienpont said the degrading permafrost in the area is likely to have been the culprit for most of the seeping. “If our goal is the complete containment of all the wastes associated with drilling in the Arctic region, then in areas of warm permafrost, drilling sumps may not be the preferable mechanism for containing those wastes.” Drilling in the Northwest Territories is growing after a major discovery of shale oil near Norman Wells, which is underlain by the same kind of warm permafrost seen in the delta. N.W.T. government officials estimate that energy companies have committed spending $637 million to explore the area. Sumps remain a recommended method of waste disposal under federal guidelines for drilling in the Arctic. Figures from the N.W.T. government show that between January 2009 and June 2011, seven sumps were constructed for drilling wastes. Wastes from another seven wells were trucked outside the territory for disposal. [Emphasis added]

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