Carbon injected underground now leaking, Saskatchewan farmer's study says
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, killing animals and sending groundwater foaming to the surface like shaken-up soda pop.
Cameron and Jane Kerr, who own nine quarter-sections of land above the Weyburn oilfield in eastern Saskatchewan, released a consultant's report Tuesday that claims to link high concentrations of carbon dioxide in their soil to the 8,000 tonnes of the gas injected underground every day by energy giant Cenovus in its attempt to enhance oil recovery and fight climate change.
"We knew, obviously, there was something wrong," said Jane Kerr.
Cameron Kerr, 64, said he has farmed in the area all his life and never had any problems until 2003, when he agreed to dig a gravel quarry.
That gravel was for a road to a plant owned by EnCana now Cenovus which had begun three years earlier to inject massive amounts of carbon dioxide underground to force more oil out of the aging field.
Cenovus has injected more than 13 million tonnes of the gas underground. The project has become a global hotspot for research into carbon capture and storage, a technology that many consider one of the best hopes for keeping greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.
By 2005, Cameron Kerr had begun noticing problems in a pair of ponds which had formed at the bottom of the quarry. They developed algae blooms, clots of foam and several colours of scum red, yellow and silver-blue. Sometimes, the ponds bubbled. Small animals cats, rabbits, 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.
In 2006, Cameron Kerr said, the province's New Democrat government agreed to conduct a year-long study to find out what was going on. That government fell to the Saskatchewan Party in the subsequent election and the year-long study was never done.
Cameron Kerr said provincial inspectors did conduct a one-time check of air quality on a day, he added, with 50-kilometre winds. Then the Kerrs sold some of their cattle and paid a private 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.
As well, Lafleur 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."
Lafleur suggests the carbon dioxide could leak into area homes. The gas is not poisonous, but it can cause asphyxiation in heavy concentrations, which is what Cameron thinks happened to the animals around his ponds.
The suggestion that the Weyburn capture and storage project might be leaking could have implications far beyond one rural neighbourhood.
The Alberta government has committed $2 billion to similar pilot projects in Alberta. 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 carbon capture and storage tests planned in Australia, Germany, Poland, the United Kingdom, China and Japan.
"I would like to see it stopped," Jane Kerr said. "I don't think it's doing what it's supposed to do."