Saskatchewan

Oil and gas leaks among 15,000 spills on new map of Saskatchewan

A group of University of Regina students and researchers used government records to map out all the oil and gas spills and leaks since 2000. The minister of Energy and Resources says the map doesn't convey that most spills are minor.

Government of Saskatchewan says most spills are 'minor or very minor' and some liquid is harmless

Government records reveal a ruptured pipe west of Swift Current, Sask. spilled 69,000 litres of oil and 1.3 million litres of produced water into a nearby slough in September 2008. Crews tried to burn off the oil from contaminated soil. (Govt. of Sask )

Researchers and students at the University of Regina collected thousands of government records to map all of the oil and gas spills in Saskatchewan since 2000.

The map shows 14,958 spills of various substances over an 18 year period, from Jan.1, 2000 to Dec. 31, 2018. They include oil, natural gas, freshwater, saltwater, and "produced water," a term for water from oil and gas production that can contain chemicals.

In total, 18.9 billion litres of substances has been leaked and the vast majority — 18 billion litres — was natural gas.

As for oil, 59 million litres was leaked overall — the equivalent of roughly 23 Olympic size swimming pools.

In July 2016, a Husky Oil pipeline leak spilled about 225,000 litres of diluted heavy oil into the North Saskatchewan River. About six months later, a ruptured Tundra Energy pipeline leaked 200,000 litres of crude oil on Ocean Man First Nation land.

This map is produced by the School of Journalism at the University of Regina in partnership with the Corporate Mapping Project, a consortium of researchers examining oil industry influence in Western Canada.

Small spills add up

U of R journalism professor Patricia Elliott oversaw the data mapping project. She says the government alerts landowners if there is a spill on their property, but she believes most people are unaware of smaller spills in rural areas and First Nations.

"There have been saltwater spills that are very devastating to people's crops, so these are all very concerning to people and people should be aware," Elliott said.

Heavy equipment is used to clear away debris from a house explosion from a natural gas leak in Regina beach in 2014. (CBC)

"You get surprised by the combined volume of the spills and the fact that they're so frequent."

'Sometimes water is just water'

Saskatchewan's Minister of Energy and Resources Bronwyn Eyre says the map marks all spills the same way and doesn't classify them by severity.

"The majority of these spills would be minor, or very minor," Eyre said.

If one clicks on a specific spill, there is information about the quantity and type of substance that was leaked.

When an oil company spills water, the government records often don't describe what contaminants, if any, are in the water. Eyre suggests that researchers have made guesses as to what might be in the water.

"There's some ambiguity in terms of the language, some speculation in the language used," Eyre said. "Sometimes water is just water."

University of Saskatchewan professor Dr. John Giesy, one of the world's top environmental toxicologists, says the toxicity of produced water can be difficult to determine because oil companies are secretive about what chemicals and detergents they add to water for drilling and oil production.

"It can be very toxic," he said.

An environmental review of a leak at Spartan Energy's oil production facility near Alida, Sask. showed how 200,000 litres of emulsion, a mixture of oil, fracking chemicals, and saltwater, seeped into two nearby wetlands. (Govt. of Sask.)

Transparency

Elliott says this mapping project was a data exercise for journalism students to learn how to access and analyze public records. She also notes that the government has made "significant improvements" in its reporting system since 2018.

For example, oil companies must now enter information about hydrogen sulphide (H2S) gas in their reports.

In April 2015, CBC's iTeam first reported the problem of oil wells releasing levels of hydrogen sulphide, or sour gas, many times higher than what would kill a person. 

The Energy minister also said the ministry has done 9,000 inspections of pipelines, wells, and facilities this year. 

"So there is no stone left unturned when there is a reported incident [of a spill], and that, I think, is important to remember."

About the Author

Bonnie Allen

Senior Reporter

Bonnie Allen is a senior reporter for CBC News based in Saskatchewan. Before returning to Canada in 2013, Allen spent four years reporting from across Africa, including Libya, South Sudan, Liberia and Sierra Leone. She holds a master's in international human rights law from the University of Oxford. @bonnieallenCBC

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