Technology & Science

Alleged leak of CO2 at Sask. farm to be probed

Field work is set to begin in late June to determine whether carbon dioxide is leaking from a Saskatchewan farm.
Foam bubbles in a soil pit on a Weyburn, Sask. farm in this Nov 12, 2007 handout photo, released on Tuesday Jan. 11, 2011 by the owner's lawyer. A Saskatchewan farm couple whose land lies over the world's largest carbon capture and storage project says greenhouse gases that were supposed to have been injected permanently underground are leaking out. (The Canadian Press)

Field work is set to begin in late June to determine whether carbon dioxide is leaking from a Saskatchewan farm.

An independent group called the International Performance Assessment Centre for Geologic Storage of Carbon Dioxide plans to take soil samples from the Kerr family farm near Weyburn.

Cameron and Jane Kerr claim gas from a nearby carbon capture and storage is seeping from the soil.

Carmen Dybwad, chief executive at the assessment centre, says a double-blind analysis will be done on multiple gas, water and soil samples gathered during the June field work.

A drilling rig will be contracted so samples up to 10 metres below ground level can be gathered.

Dybwad says they hope to make the findings public by the end of the summer.

"We're going to take a look at the relationship between carbon dioxide and other gases. So it's the level of carbon dioxide in relationship to the level of oxygen and perhaps even the level of nitrogen," Dybwad said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

"The soil scientists understand that if it's a natural occurrence in terms of carbon dioxide there are certain relationships that you will see. And if it's abnormal, in other words if it could possibly be an unintended release, you'd get a different combination."

The Kerrs own nine quarter-sections of land above the Weyburn oilfield in southeastern Saskatchewan.

Previous report found elevated levels of C02

They released a consultant's report in January that links high concentrations of carbon dioxide in their soil to the gas injected underground every day by energy giant Cenovus (TSX:CVE) in an attempt to enhance oil recovery and fight climate change.

Since 2000, Cenovus has injected about 16 million tonnes of carbon dioxide underground to force more oil from an aging field and safely store greenhouse gases that would otherwise contribute to climate change.

But in 2005, the Kerrs began noticing algae blooms, clots of foam and multicoloured scum in two ponds at the bottom of a gravel quarry on their land. Sometimes, the ponds bubbled. They said small animals were regularly found dead a few metres away.

Eventually, the Kerrs paid a consultant for a study.

Paul Lafleur of Petro-Find Geochem found carbon dioxide concentrations in the soil last summer that were several times those typically found in field soils. Lafleur suggested CO2 could be escaping through faults and fractures or through abandoned oil and gas wells. He also used the mix of carbon isotopes he found in the gas to trace its source.

A Cenovus spokeswoman has said the company doubts those findings.

Rhona Delfrari pointed out they contradict years of research from other scientists. Delfrari also noted that the nearest injection well is about two kilometres from the Kerr property and no other farmers in the area have complained.

Dybwad said the harsh and lengthy winter made it unwise and unfeasible to do any field work sooner.

The principal investigator of the study will be Katherine Romanak of the University of Texas at Austin's Bureau of Economic Geology.

Carbon Management Canada, a network of 22 Canadian universities researching large-scale ways to reduce carbon emissions in the fossil fuel industry, will provide specialists when required. The organization will also assemble a group of scientists to review the methodology for sampling before the field work begins on the Kerr farm.

Dybwad said their work will be confined to the Kerr farm and she insisted it will be "a fact-based review."

"It is not to determine fault or point fingers," said Dybwad. "We want to find out what happened."