July 18th, 2018

City safe despite methane leaks: officials

By Collin Gallant on June 29, 2017.

Four long-abandoned gas wells in Medicine Hat are leaking methane at a concerning rate, according to an draft report by the Alberta Energy Regulator. Some of these are at downtown locations.--NEWS PHOTO EMMA BENNETT


Four long-abandoned gas wells in central Medicine Hat are leaking methane at a concerning rate, according to a draft report by the Alberta Energy Regulator, portions of which the News has acquired.

Excerpts detail methane readings higher than an “acute threshold” deemed above acceptable health and safety standards at several of the wells that date back to the early 20th century.

The B.C.-based online publication, http://www.thetyee.ca, first reported Wednesday that an internal AER regulator analysis of about 300 of the 1,500 abandoned wells in urban areas of the province found that 36 were leaking methane.

Of the five worst polluting wellsites, two are found in the downtown core of Medicine Hat, one in the North Flats and another near the railyard on South Railway Street.

That is not a surprise to officials with City of Medicine Hat, which for decades has monitored air quality around all known abandoned wells in the city, and in 2014 began submitting readings to the AER as part of new regulations.

Those figures likely form the report’s conclusions, said Brad Maynes, general manager of the city’s natural gas and petroleum resource.

“We have a long history of testing … and those that are leaking at levels that we would consider to be a public risk, we have mitigation efforts underway,” said Maynes.

If readings were to rise to dangerous levels, immediate action would be taken, he said.

“The bottom line is the city is safe.”

The City of Medicine Hat is both the local municipal authority and also the licence holder of three of the five wells, including one relief well, at four sites.

Maynes said all five, including an unlicensed private well that has no owner, are subjects of advanced city plans to close the wells permanently or capture, contain, then remove the gas as it migrates to the surface.

“On those wells that we consider to be of reasonable concern, we have work underway to mitigate methane,” said Maynes. “Most are very old and 100-plus-year-old wells were drilled with very, almost ancient, technology, and the way they were abandoned was rudimentary.”

New regulations in 2014 compelled local authorities to identify and assess abandoned oil and gas wells within urban areas.

The AER’s report, stamped as a draft, was completed in 2016 but not published.

An AER spokesperson told the News the report is not finalized due to the complex nature of different wellsites. It continues to work with the city, as well as Alberta Health and the Orphan Well Association, which can takeover legacy wells when companies cannot fulfil commitments.

That is “to determine whether the level of methane leaked from these abandoned wells is a risk to health and public safety, and what steps should be taken regarding these wells,” said Ryan Bartlett, a communication officer with the agency.

“It’s important to note that the leaks from these wells all vent outdoors, which significantly reduces the risk.”

Among the report’s recommendations are that monitoring continue at the four sites, and that Alberta Health study the effects on health in the areas.

The report recommends a fifth local well located on Ninth Street NE near Division Avenue be monitored as it shows elevated, but not acute levels.

The licence’s numbers date back to the earliest days of petroleum exploration in the province.

Wells originally licensed to the City of Medicine Hat are located in the North Flats (near Woodman Ave.), a parking lot at the 700 block of South Railway Street, and near Fourth Avenue and Fifth Street in the downtown core, possibly on the site of the Fifth Avenue Memorial Church.

Another, unlicensed well, is described only as American Hotel No. 1, could relate to the famous lodging establishment that sat on South Railway at the beginning of the 20th Century.

At that time it was not unusual for businesses or private citizens to simply start drilling for their own purposes, though, starting in 1902, the city began taking over the legal rights to all local energy exploration.

Reports state that a vacant building near the American Hotel No. 1 site is being vented to avoid the collection and concentration of gas.

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