Groundwater testing remains a concern in Alberta, protects industry more than it does groundwater

Groundwater testing remains a concern by Caroline Zentner, January 18, 2014, Lethbridge Herald
The extent to which groundwater in Alberta has been affected by oil and gas development may never be known even though the province has recently [8 years ago] made efforts to establish some baseline measurements. Liberal MLA David Swann said the baseline groundwater testing program he pushed for in 2006 hasn’t gone far enough and landowners who have had their water wells contaminated may have been silenced by confidentiality agreements. …

On top of that, Swann said the situation has been effectively covered up by government and industry practices. Farmers or landowners who reported their groundwater was undrinkable or had changed because of oil and gas activity were referred to the Farmer’s Advocate. The advocate was empowered to assess a water well and decide if the cause was bacterial overgrowth that could be treated by chlorination or the presence of gaseous hydrocarbons, which can occur naturally or from oil and gas activity. “The default position was if they couldn’t clearly say from biological processes like bacteria the industry would offer to drill a new well. I believe farmers and landowners were encouraged to take that route because otherwise they get nothing. So they took that with the condition that they sign a confidentiality agreement,” Swann said. “That’s been to some extent the way the West developed and everybody’s happy. Nobody knows what’s going on under there. We just sweep it under the carpet.”

It was Jessica Ernst’s case that propelled Swann to push government to start a baseline testing program. Ernst, an oilpatch consultant who lives in Rosebud, launched a lawsuit against Encana, the provincial energy regulator and the provincial government in 2011 for $33 million. She claims gas wells fracked near her property contaminated her water well. According to media reports, a Court of Queen’s Bench justice ruled last October the provincial energy regulator cannot be sued under provincial law. Ernst is reported to have said she planned to appeal the ruling.

The idea of the testing program was to identify before-and-after groundwater quality with respect to oil and gas development. Modern technology allows for isotopes (differing forms of the same element) to be tested so results yield a fingerprint that scientists can use to match water samples with nearby oil and gas samples. That makes it possible to diagnose contamination from a particular oil well, Swann said. The program was started in response to coalbed methane development.

[Reality check:

Testing is only near coalbed methane wells frac’d above the Base of Groundwater Protection. Other failings with the program include:

  • a few hundred thousand conventional wells and test holes, many leaking methane, were drilled and thousands of fracs took place above the Base of Groundwater Protection (where the fresh water is) before the testing program was initiated (refer to map below for an example), ensuring that the data collected is not baseline;
  • Companies are frac’ing for “biogenic” methane but fingerprinting gases from such energy wells is not mandatory. This ensures no database of industry’s “biogenic” methane fingerprints to compare to “biogenic” fingerprints of methane found in water wells (e.g. Dr. Mayer compared “biogenic” methane found in Alberta water wells to thermogenic methane from deep energy wells in the USA and Alberta which ensures no match; red added to show biogenic, yellow to show thermogenic);
  • 2014 01 07 Dr Bernard Mayer Presentation to Yukon Select Frac Committee red and yellow emphasis addedtesting key industrial pollutants, such as BTEX and metals, isn’t mandatory;
  • when non-compliance is reported to the regulators, there’s no enforcement.

Is Alberta groundwater protected?]

A science review panel was formed to evaluate the program and Bernhard Mayer, a geoscience professor at the University of Calgary, was a panel member. He said roughly 10,000 water samples were taken between 2006 and 2011, analyzed and put in a database now publicly available through the Alberta Environment website. “This is a huge undertaking which is quite unique within Canada,” Mayer said.

However, Swann said what’s lacking is a big-picture analysis of the data. Mayer said Alberta Innovates did a preliminary overview of the data in 2011. That report is still going through government process and is not available publicly. However, Mayer said an overall analysis might yield little data about groundwater impacts because the samples were taken before drilling and, to his knowledge, very few landowners requested retesting after drilling. “From what I’ve seen I don’t think there is widespread evidence that there are numerous problems all over the place,” Mayer said.

He’s cautious in his statement because problems could develop five or 15 years later and not enough samples would be available to demonstrate it’s related to coalbed methane development. He’s also cautious because of stories he’s heard about the industry compensating landowners for contaminated water wells and drilling them new wells in exchange for their silence. “Hence it’s difficult to say how widespread a problem there may be,” Mayer said. Nonetheless Mayer said Alberta is ahead of the game among Canadian jurisdictions when it comes to groundwater testing.

Swann points to a potential problem with conventional drilling. The exploratory oil wells being proposed in Lethbridge, like many others in the province, are expected to be drilled to a depth of almost 6,000 feet, far below the water table. “We’ve got something like 400,000 oil and gas wells in Alberta, so just imagine how many punctures there are in the water tables. It’s hard to imagine that, in some of the older wells, the cement casing that’s supposed to seal the oil and gas reservoir from any upper level groundwater is all intact,” Swann said, adding old wells are only checked if someone complains.

2 Responses to “Groundwater testing remains a concern”

Rural Alberta says:
January 18, 2014 at 2:53 PM

“‘So they took that with the condition that they sign a confidentiality agreement,’ Swann said. ‘That’s been to some extent the way the West developed and everybody’s happy. Nobody knows what’s going on under there. We just sweep it under the carpet.’”

Yes, it’s unfortunate we can’t lift the carpet and see how many bodies have actually been swept under there. But you never know, maybe some of them will crawl out on their own, someday.

“‘As somebody who has reported for 20 years on this industry in the province [Alberta], I can tell you I’ve met hundreds of people in this province who have signed confidentiality agreements once their water was blown, once their livestock was killed, once a member of their family were injured, once they lost most of their grass or their trees as a result of fouling events, contamination events, air pollution, you name it.

It is common practice in this province to buy people out, and then buy their silence … so there is no record of how this industry quite often performs badly.’”

“In cases from Wyoming to Arkansas, Pennsylvania to Texas, drillers have agreed to cash settlements or property buyouts with people who say hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, ruined their water … . In most cases homeowners must agree to keep quiet. The strategy keeps data from regulators, policymakers, the news media and health researchers … .

… Non-disclosure agreements ‘have interfered with the ability of scientists and public health experts to understand what is at stake here.’

… It’s the equivalent of burying the bodies. They just don’t want this information to ever come and haunt them again. … The oil and gas industry essentially said, ‘If you speak, we will sue you.’”

“Swann said, adding old wells are only checked if someone complains.”

Well, sort of, but not for long. They might check 9 out of 50 – over an 8 year period – while they continue to allow more and more and more wells to be drilled and frac’d near you and your contaminated water well … but then they just slam the door in your face – so, not really helpful.

“‘Case closed with no concern for the landowners or the community’s water.

We still have to live with it.’

—Ronalie Campbell”

“Nonetheless Mayer said Alberta is ahead of the game among Canadian jurisdictions when it comes to groundwater testing.”

Yes, it probably doesn’t take much to do the bare minimum, but you have to wonder what they’re afraid of – when asked to do more.

“Why is EnCana not willing to test our water beyond the minimum standards?

… EnCana wants to drill a well on land next to me. They came and asked permission to test my water wells, which I granted. I also asked them if they would take two extra water samples; for Barium and Strontium (as recommended by Alan McCann) and also test for dissolved gas. Encana gave me a flat answer of “NO”. They would only follow the AB Environment standards (which I and others believe are not stringent enough), and if I did not agree to that, they would not perform the tests at all, and note that I had refused the testing.

… A long story short – I had to ask an independent person to come back and open the wells to take samples of Barium and Strontium and send them to the labs. I will have the results sent to EnCana and AB Environment. Will EnCana recognize these samples as valid if there is a future problem? I doubt it, there was a reason they did not want to have these samples included in the first place.

Was it because they could pin point responsibility in the future? I don’t know.

After relaying my frustration and concerns to neighbours and friends, I have found that other companies have been very cooperative with extra testing, but that EnCana has not. I also heard that EnCana refused to do the same tests for a landowner near Hussar. Have others had the same or a similar experience? Have they requested these tests? Have they been refused?

Why would EnCana not want as much information as possible about these water wells? At the end of the day, one has to ask, what is EnCana afraid of? And if they are not afraid, why won’t they allow me to have the tests done, at my expense but be recorded on their records?”


“Ernst also said that Encana did offer to test her water well, but the gesture resembled a Monty Python sketch. In one case ‘they offered to test my water well in a registered letter with a limited deadline of acceptance. They mailed it to me 24 days after the deadline,’ she alleged. Ernst claimed she repeatedly told the company that they could test her water well as soon as Encana released a list of its fracking chemicals, so that groundwater technicians would know what contaminants to test for. She said the company refused.”

Rural Alberta says:
January 18, 2014 at 3:00 PM

“Mayer said Alberta Innovates did a preliminary overview of the data in 2011. That report is still going through government process and is not available publicly.”

That should be interesting, Alberta Innovates (formerly the Alberta Research Council) also did an “overview” of high profile water contamination cases.

“In 2004, Encana fractured directly into the drinking water aquifers at Rosebud: ‘The top perforation was stimulated with 3,000 m3 [3,000,000 litres] of nitrogen (at standard temperature and pressure) at a rate of 500 m3/min [500,000 litres/min] for six minutes. The top set of perforations in this CBM well (125.5 to 126.4 mKb) was in the Weaver coal zone, the same as many of the local water wells … ‘

… Testing of the gas from the aquifer in 2004 showed high concentrations of methane and nitrogen. Nitrogen was as high as 30% in the gas in the first water well that went bad. A publicly available gas analysis on the Encana CBM well that frac’d the aquifer shows it contained 29.65% nitrogen even after it was flowed for months.

… The Alberta Research Council [now Alberta Innovates] dismissed the high nitrogen levels in the Signer and Lauridsen wells at Rosebud by also ignoring Encana’s data from the gas well with 29.65% nitrogen and claiming:

the water wells might be breathing wells;
there might be an ‘aquifer connection to the atmosphere at some distant point;’ and
‘[n]itrogen concentrations in energy wells are less than 15%.’

… The Alberta Research Council did not review the high nitrogen in the Ernst water, not even to dismiss it. The research council did however use a high nitrogen level in a gas sample from an EnCana gas well at Rosebud, to claim air contamination and thereby dismiss the isotopic fingerprinting analysis that matched ethane signatures in EnCana’s gas to gas in the contaminated water wells. Instead of requesting new gas samples from EnCana, the research council used gas samples from gas wells frac’d much deeper and located over 100 miles away to claim no match and refuse to release this data, even after Freedom of Information requests and subsequent inquiry.

Documents obtained by Freedom of Information show that the Alberta Research Council calculated the gas production from the Ernst water well to be 0.94 litres/minute. This information was not revealed in their reports. The research council dismissed the gas in the water wells at Rosebud by claiming it was biogenic but couldn’t explain where it came from. The research council included in their reports the historic records for the now contaminated water wells that state Gas Present: No, but did not discuss them. Instead, on the Ernst case, the council wrote: ‘Historically, methane has been observed in water wells in the Rosebud area’ and on the Signer and Lauridsen cases: ‘Historically, methane has been observed in water wells in the Rosebud and Redland areas.’

The ERCB and Alberta Environment accepted HCL’s and the Alberta Research Council’s omissions, errors and arguments, and the contamination cases were closed. The claimants requested peer-review and correction of the errors and omissions. They received no response. Drs. Barbara Tilley and Karlis Muehlenbachs, geochemists at the University of Alberta questioned Dr. Blyth’s dismissal of the contamination cases:

‘In summary, given the unqualified nature of the D35 well database, the disregard of diagnostic ethane isotopic ratios and the lack of coal gas isotope data, we find the overall conclusion of Dr. Blyth’s report “An independent review of coalbed methane related water well complaints filed with Alberta Environment” January 16, 2008, to be premature.’”

“Ernst is reported to have said she planned to appeal the ruling.”

And she has, fortunately for Albertans.

“The appeal says that Justice Wittmann erred in finding that the Energy Resources Conservation Act granted the provincial energy regulator immunity from either ‘negligent omissions’ or from acts undermining Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms such as breaches of freedom of expression.

‘The Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench has ruled that in this case, the energy regulator is virtually untouchable — that the ERCB cannot be sued for violating the constitutional free speech rights of a private citizen, and in fact, cannot be sued no matter how badly the regulator behaves,’ said Murray Klippenstein, lawyer for Ms. Ernst.

‘Ms. Ernst thinks this is wrong. She believes that Albertans deserve much better from their energy regulator. This is why Ms. Ernst is appealing.’”

[Refer also to:

Alberta to consider testing water near fracking sites, Energy companies are not required to test water quality even though the ERCB knew a decade ago that hydraulic fracturing in Alberta was causing serious damages

Encana shallow fracing at Rosebud before mandated Baseline Testing April 2006 shows location water tower that exploded in 2005

Source: Ernst Presentations 

Click on the map to get the PDF; zoom in for the legal land descriptions of the shallow wells frac’d where the fresh water is (red, many of these with multiple perforated intervals) up to April 2006 when the water testing program was initiated, and deeper wells (black). Encana continues to frac shallow where the fresh water is – including on deviated wells near the Ernst property; the regulators do not stop the company.

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