A Saskatchewan farm couple whose land lies over the world's largest carbon capture and storage project says greenhouse gases seeping from the soil are killing animals and sending groundwater foaming to the surface like shaken soda pop.
The gases were supposed to have been injected permanently underground.The story has been disputed and will no doubt be subject to further controversy and tests. Here's an update from the Green blog of the New York Times. It notes the bleak conclusion drawn by The Globe and Mail newspaper--“What started as a series of worrisome problems on a rural Saskatchewan property has now raised serious questions about the safety of carbon sequestration and storage, a technology that has drawn billions in spending from governments and industry, which have promoted it as a salve to Canada’s growth in greenhouse-gas emissions”--but adds:
Cameron and Jane Kerr own nine quarter-sections of land above the Weyburn oilfield in eastern Saskatchewan. They released a consultant's report Tuesday that links high concentrations of carbon dioxide in their soil to 6,000 tonnes of the gas injected underground every day by energy giant Cenovus (TSX:CVE) in an attempt to enhance oil recovery and fight climate change.
"We knew, obviously, there was something wrong," said Jane Kerr.
A Cenovus spokeswoman said the company doubts those findings. She pointed out they contradict years of research from other scientists.
"It's not what we believe," said Rhona Delfrari.
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. Small animals — cats, rabbits and goats — were regularly found dead a few metres away.
Then there were the explosions.
"At night we could hear this sort of bang like a cannon going off," said Jane Kerr, 58. "We'd go out and check the gravel pit and, in the walls, it (had) blown a hole in the side and there would be all this foaming coming out of this hole."
"Just like you shook up a bottle of Coke and had your finger over it and let it spray," added her husband.
The water, said Jane Kerr, came out of the ground carbonated.
"It would fizz and foam."
Alarmed, the couple left their farm and moved to Regina.
"It was getting too dangerous to live there," Cameron Kerr said.
He said provincial inspectors did a one-time check of air quality. 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 averaged about 23,000 parts per million — several times those typically found in field soils. Concentrations peaked at 110,607 parts per million.
Lafleur also used the mix of carbon isotopes he found in the gas to trace its source.
"The ... source of the high concentrations of CO2 in the soils of the Kerr property is clearly the anthropogenic CO2 injected into the Weyburn reservoir," he wrote.
"The survey also demonstrates that the overlying thick cap rock of anhydrite over the Weyburn reservoir is not an impermeable barrier to the upward movement of light hydrocarbons and CO2 as is generally thought."
Not so fast, some top geologists say.So: it's not happening, but if it's happening, it's no big deal; and if it is a big deal, there should be a remedy.
Sally Benson, a geologist at Stanford University, described the report, by Paul Lafleur, president of Petro-Find Geochem, a Saskatoon-based geological consulting firm, as far from comprehensive and said that other causes unconnected to the Weyburn project could be the source of the Kerrs’ problems.
“It’s a very short report and it’s a very complex issue,” Dr. Benson said.
Susan D. Hovorka, a geologist at the University of Texas at Austin, went further, saying that Mr. Fleur’s declarations that a firm link had been found between carbon dioxide on the Kerrs’ property and the storage project were “misleading.”
“He may be certain, but he’s wrong about his certainty,” Dr. Hovorka said. “His confidence is not justified by the data.”
The Petroleum Research Technology Center, a Saskatchewan-based research group overseeing the Weyburn project, has also issued a report strongly rebutting the consultant’s report.
Scientists also questioned the conclusion that the type of leakage allegedly occurring on the Kerrs’ property — even if it were confirmed — undermined the case for carbon capture and storage as a climate-change solution.
“That’s ridiculous — people have been saying from the beginning that there are things that could go wrong of this nature,” Dr. Benson said. “This is nothing radically out of the range of expectations.”
“Does this mean that carbon dioxide storage projects will leak back enough carbon into the atmosphere that they would cease to be effective? Absolutely not,” she added.
An independent investigation of the Kerr property has already been proposed by IPAC-CO2, a carbon-storage research institute, and both Cenovus and a lawyer for the Kerr family have signaled their approval.
“It certainly warrants looking into,” Dr. Benson said. “If there’s damage occurring, a remedy should be made.”