The most damaging story to the natural gas industry last year was issued at New Year’s and caught industry off guard and without an effective response.
One year later we have a follow up right before Christmas where our industry association did not have a comment. Though when I checked they said no one asked them for one.
The story a year ago was that natural gas was detected by government inspectors at 19 of 31 natural gas wells. The question I had is why not at all 31? Fugitive emissions are hardly new or news. According to a study of over 300,000 wells in Alberta just under 5% of wells have small leaks and 0.6% have methane migration. The pipeline systems have them too. They are a routine part of our business and they are inspected and repaired often without coming to the attention of senior management unless there is a health or safety issue.
However, it was spun as a story of how 19 of 31 natural gas wells were leaking and industry couldn’t stop it. Even the government suggested industry was out of control. It’s like discovering that you have to add air to your tires from time to time and suggesting that the tire industry is out of control.
It is our opponents’ top PR coup of 2011 and one year later is still one of the top three questions I get in Quebec. This in spite of the government confirming later that very few wells actually needed any preventative maintenance.
The story now is a professor from the University of Alberta reported in November, sometime before Christmas, that he tested natural gas samples from Quebec. Thermogenic shale gas exists naturally in the groundwater of the St. Lawrence Valley. The professor reported he thus could not prove the natural gas in ground water migrated naturally and so hypothetically it could have migrated due to well drilling. The government agreed they couldn’t tell the difference between naturally occurring natural gas and production gas so hypothetically there could be migration.
As a specialist in testing natural gas it may not be too surprising that the point of the professor’s report was to recommend more detailed testing of natural gas be carried out.
We have used the University of Alberta for this type of isotope testing ourselves. They were not able to help us either when we asked them to tell different natural gas samples from the Devonian age apart. We think they are competent but there are limits inherent in the estimations used in the tests.
This time the spin is the first case of water contamination has been discovered with the innuendo that industry is hiding the information. Yet it was industry who paid for the testing in an obvious effort to find an answer. Industry doesn’t even know what wells the professor refers to and are trying to find out.
However, there is a big difference in the stories this time. This time I agree with the Minister of Environment. Current groundwater knowledge in the St. Lawrence Valley needs to be improved. The professor’s suggestion of gathering more data from natural gas drilling operations could help. Let’s take this issue and the professor’s recommendations seriously.