Technology & Science

Sask. CO2 storage probed over alleged leak

An independent group will investigate claims from a Saskatchewan couple that gas from a carbon dioxide capture operation is leaking at their farm.
Cameron and Jane Kerr took this photo of what they say is gas bubbling from water on their property. ((Courtesy of Cameron and Jane Kerr))
An independent group will investigate claims from a Saskatchewan couple that gas from a carbon capture operation is leaking out at their farm.

The International Performance Assessment Centre for Geologic Storage of Carbon Dioxide is putting together a team to look at what's happening in the Weyburn carbon capture and storage project.

That's where energy giant Cenovus injects CO2 into the ground to enhance oil recovery and fight climate change.

Cameron and Jane Kerr, who own nearby land, say the gas is leaking. The Kerrs released a consultant's report last week that linked high concentrations of carbon dioxide in their soil to the injected gas.

Carmen Dybwad, chief executive at the assessment centre, said Monday the object of the review "is not to determine fault or point fingers. We're going to be taking a look at this just like an episode of CSI.

"We're not assuming that a release took place or didn't take place. The first step is, 'Was there a release? What was it a release of?' Everybody's jumping to the conclusion that because carbon dioxide was put into the ground that the effects that the Kerrs saw was from a release of that particular gas. (It) could be from something else."

She noted that the region in southeastern Saskatchewan is known for coal mining and oil production.

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

Algae blooms, animal deaths

The Kerrs say that in 2005 they 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.

This Weyburn, Sask., terminal is where Cenovus injects CO2 into the ground to enhance oil recovery and fight climate change. ((Troy Fleece/Canadian press))
Groundwater would come foaming to the surface. Small animals — cats, rabbits and goats — were regularly found dead a few metres away.

Alarmed, the couple left and moved to Regina.

They 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. Cenovus says those findings contradict years of research from other scientists.

A 2004 report on the project by Saskatchewan's Petroleum Technology Research Centre, an agency bringing together government, academics and industry, said there was no indication carbon dioxide was making its way up through 1,400 metres of rock.

The Regina-based assessment centre is an environmental, non-government organization created to provide independent risk analyses of geologic storage of carbon dioxide to governments, industry and the public.

Dybwad says a list of team members involved in the study will be released once their participation has been confirmed. So far, it includes experts from the Gulf Coast Carbon Center at the University of Texas and Carbon Management Canada Ltd., a network of 22 Canadian universities researching large-scale ways to reduce carbon emissions in the fossil fuel industry.

No one in the just-announced review can have any previous association with the Weyburn project.

The Kerrs, who have demanded a full public investigation, could not be reached for comment. Ecojustice, an environmental group working with the couple, said it hoped the study could provide answers.

"The terms of reference, in an initial read, would seem to address the kind of issues that we're hoping to have addressed," said Ecojustice lawyer Barry Robinson. "I'm sort of cautiously optimistic that this might be useful, but I do need to look in more detail at the terms of reference."

Implications for similar projects

The suggestion that the Weyburn project might be leaking could have implications for similar projects for storing carbon underground — a technique being studied around the world with billions of dollars of public financing.

Alberta has committed $2 billion to similar pilot projects. The United States has committed $3.4 billion for carbon capture and storage. Norway has been injecting carbon dioxide into the sea floor since 1996. There are also carbon capture and storage tests planned in Australia, Germany, Poland, the United Kingdom, China and Japan.

Dybwad says she doesn't think the concerns spell the end for carbon capture. Instead, she believes the study could help the industry.

The results, which will be made public, will help establish standards for future projects that include an enhanced oil recovery component.

"It's going to provide knowledge and help projects going forward to be as good as possible," said Dybwad. "This should instill all kinds of confidence in folks that geologic storage of carbon dioxide is a safe procedure, and we're going to keep perfecting our understanding of it and our techniques and our best practices the more information we get."