Down on the Kerrs’ Farm: A Comment on the Reports of Alleged Carbon Dioxide Leaks from Cenovus’ Weyburn Project

By: Nigel Bankes

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is not yet a proven technology at commercial scales. It is true that we have had considerable experience with analogies including acid gas disposal projects, natural gas storage projects and enhanced oil recovery (EOR) projects (involving the injection of carbon dioxide as a miscible flood). We also have some international experience especially in the North Sea with CO2 injection projects not linked to EOR, but elsewhere, commercial scale CCS projects are just getting underway. And there is nothing that would stop or seriously slow the adoption of CCS more quickly than a significant failure in one of the early projects.

For some this would be no bad thing – particularly for the climate skeptics, those who believe that human induced global warming is not happening. Others accept the reality of global warming but are philosophically opposed to CCS as a means of mitigating emissions. The challenge for this group is to identify realistic alternatives if we remove CCS as an option. Yes, energy conservation and the widespread and aggressive adoption of renewables will get us a long way, and for some nuclear energy is an important part of the solution, but national mitigation strategies often adopt a “wedge” that represents the contribution that CCS can make to meeting national mitigation targets (see for example, the work of the National Round Table on the Economy and the Environment). If we lose the CCS wedge we need to find other mitigation strategies that can deliver over the next ten to twenty years.

This is what is so troubling about the reports (see below) that are emerging from Saskatchewan in which the Kerr family alleges that they are experiencing harms from carbon dioxide leaking from the enhanced oil recovery operation of Encana (now Cenovus) in the Weyburn Field in Saskatchewan. This project (which is an EOR project and not a CCS project) has been extensively and intensively studied since 2000 by an international group of scientists and has been adopted by the International Energy Agency as a pilot project to encourage learning for future CCS projects (see here).

It is important that we get to the bottom of the Kerrs’ concerns and it is important for CCS skeptics and proponents alike. Governments and industry cannot afford to be defensive and cannot afford to say things like: “the Kerr family has not established that there is any connection between our operations and the problems that the Kerrs have been experiencing on their farm.” That is an adequate response in a court of law where the cause of action is Rylands (v. Fletcher, [1868] UKHL 1), nuisance, trespass or negligence. But it is not an adequate response to the public at large when we are considering the widespread adoption of a new and potentially important technology. Neither is it adequate simply to question the credentials or methodology followed by the scientist who prepared the expert report for the Kerrs. Something does seem to be rotten on the Kerrs’ farm and this is one of those situations in which we need a convincing explanation for what is causing the problem. We also need to definitively rule out the possibility that the problem was caused by Encana’s CO2 flood operation. The onus for this in the court of public opinion must lie with Encana/Cenovus and the Government of Saskatchewan as the regulator of this project. And if it turns out that there is a problem with the CO2 flood then we all need to come to terms with that and identify what went wrong in an open and transparent way – but we are not there yet.

For media and other coverage see the following:

Ecojustice

http://www.ecojustice.ca/media-centre/press-releases/sask.-family-demands-answers-on-carbon-capture-and-storage-risks

Ecojustice is representing the Kerrs and this site contains links to a site history and to an expert report.

The Leader Post

http://www.leaderpost.com/health/Sask+couple+demands+study+conducted+determine+source+alleged+leak/4093755/story.html?id=4093755

The Globe and Mail

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/technology/science/alleged-leaks-from-carbon-storage-project-questioned/article1869487/

Andrew Nikiforuk, “Pfffft Goes Promise of Pumping C02 Underground”

http://thetyee.ca/Opinion/2011/01/12/PromiseOfPumpingCO2/

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About Nigel Bankes

B.A., M.A. (Cantab.), LL.M. (UBC). Professor. Chair of Natural Resources Law. Member of the Alberta Bar. Please click here for more information.
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