During the past year, Quebec’s quickly growing shale gas industry sparked heated debates about potential contamination of water. It wasn’t until last week that some new concerns over possible effects on the atmosphere came to light.
In December, Quebec’s Department of Natural Resources inspected 31 of the province’s brand new gas wells and found that 19 of these were leaking. The information was not released until the public watchdog agency, the bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement, made repeated requests to view the results of the inspection.
Stephane Perrault is a Quebec spokesperson for Talisman Energy, the largest corporation exploring shale gas in the province. He said Talisman has five wells in Quebec, which leak an average of 150 cubic metres of gas per well, per day.
“It flows out to the atmosphere,” said Perrault, who described the leaks as a common occurrence in the industry. He said they happen when the concrete casing around pipes is not completely tight.
“We figure out if it’s useful to actually do some work on the well,” Perrault said. “If it remains a small quantity and a small pressure, we don’t necessarily intervene.”
According to Perrault, the emissions are 96 per cent methane, a non-toxic but highly flammable greenhouse gas. When it comes to these leaks, he said Talisman’s primary concern is the safety of their staff. The company monitors the wells about once a month and if the methane is not building up enough to cause explosions, the company lets it go.
“That’s disturbing,” said Judith Patterson, an associate professor of geology at Concordia who specializes in the impact of fossil fuels on the atmosphere. “There shouldn’t be any escaping gas. That means their trapping mechanism isn’t working properly.”
Calling this type of leak a “fugitive emission,” Patterson said the global warming potential of methane is 21 times that of carbon dioxide.
“This adds to the burden of GHG [greenhouse gas] in the atmosphere,” she said. “Maybe this isn’t going to melt the polar ice, but if this is going to be a large-scale operation, then you don’t want this.”
To illustrate her point, Patterson whipped out her latest heating bill and did some quick math. It takes about 1750 cubic metres a year to heat her 1000 square foot, two-bedroom home in NDG. This means that in one year, the average amount of gas leaking from just one shale gas well is enough to provide heat and hot water to 30 houses like hers.
“This is a hell of a lot,” she said, pointing out that as the number of wells increase, so will the emissions.
Abdul Pirani is President of the Montreal chapter of the Council of Canadians, a group that is pushing for a moratorium on the industry until potential consequences like these are addressed.
“We are not against shale gas exploration,” said Pirani. “It is good for business. But first and foremost, it has to be safe. Safe for the people and safe for the environment.”
Most Quebecers agree. A Leger Marketing poll conducted in 2010 showed that 76 per cent of the province’s residents want to suspend operations until impact studies are complete.
Perrault, however, said a moratorium would waste time and energy by examining aspects of the industry that may not be relevant in the Quebec context. For example, the highly poisonous gas hydrogen sulfide, which is prevalent in Alberta’s shale gas, isn’t present in gas coming from Quebec’s wells.
“We were pretty sure there was no [hydrogen sulfide] in the gas in Quebec, but you never know for sure until you drill,” said Perrault.
Patterson said that the absence of hydrogen sulfide is indeed a plus.
“They must be really excited because that means it’s a nice, clean gas that will need less processing” said Patterson.
But she added that leaks at the top of the well suggest that leaks beneath the surface are likely, which could lead to water contamination. With an EPA report on shale gas and water set to come out this year in the U.S., Patterson recommends waiting for these results before the industry proceeds.
Furthermore, she said the Quebec government can use wells already drilled to investigate the industry.
“On the one hand, it’s good that we have these 31 wells,” she said. “But there should be no more if two-thirds of them are leaking.”