Skip to content

Sour gas leak blamed on lack of maintenance

An oil and gas company failed to maintain an abandoned well that leaked sour gas near homes in Charlie Lake and Fort St. John last December, according to a new B.C. Oil and Gas Commission report.
leak
Old Hope Road resident Allan Norman stands at the entrance to a natural gas well that leaked last December. “It was just like a roar, an instant roar of pressure being released, like an oxygen bottle being opened up, how it blows and whistles,” he recalls.

An oil and gas company failed to maintain an abandoned well that leaked sour gas near homes in Charlie Lake and Fort St. John last December, according to a new B.C. Oil and Gas Commission report.

Earlier this month, the regulator released the results of an investigation into a leak at a Terra Energy gas well near the Old Hope Road on Dec. 11, 2014. The leak may have started two weeks earlier.

Rick Koechl, a nearby landowner, recalled smelling foul odours similar to those of sour gas days before the leak was confirmed and residents were notified.

“It would come and go in terrible waves,” he said in a recent interview. “You wouldn’t know when it would return.”

Koechl said he alerted the commission to one well near his property, first drilled in 1966, and reopened in 2005 only to be abandoned when no gas was produced. Despite the tip, the OGC said it was unable to find the source of the leak.

It turned out, however, that gas was leaking from the well.

Since it was abandoned in 2005, the pipe welding had suffered fatigue, according to the commission’s investigation, and began to crack over time.

Terra Energy was responsible for inspecting the welds annually, however, the commission found the company had not done this.

According to Richard Campbell, Terra’s vice-president of production operations, there was a breakdown in communication.

“Over the course of years, people in the office had changed,” he said. “So knowledge sort of goes with some people, as in any company, any industry. I’ve only been here three years. There was no information that I knew of on the well.”

Allan Norman, another nearby landowner, recalled hearing a loud noise on Dec. 11.

“It was just like a roar, an instant roar of pressure being released, like an oxygen bottle being opened up, how it blows and whistles,” said Norman.

According to the OGC report, the commission was notified of a potential leak at 9:30 a.m. However, it wasn’t until six hours later that the commission finally determined there was a leak in progress.

A local farmer had to provide his tractor to gain access to the well site, as Terra did not have the equipment on hand to do so, according to landowners.

At 6 p.m., more than eight hours after the initial report, landowners were notified. Terra went door-to-door notifying residents the leak was happening.

A few chose to stay in Fort St. John while the company figured out how to cap the leak.

Some of them, however, didn’t get the message.

Koechl wasn’t home while all this was happening. When he returned, there was no indication that a gas leak had happened, he said, and only learned of the leak through a neighbour.

Koechl said he was not harmed. According to the OGC, the concentration was low enough to make any long-term health impacts unlikely.

At its highest concentration, it was only at two parts per million.

According to WorkSafe BC, this only results in a strong odour. At 200 parts per million, sour gas can be fatal.

The OGC began investigating the well after the leak was contained. It found that Terra’s emergency response plan identified the well as “sweet"—meaning that it did not contain hydrogen sulphide.

“What we anticipated was sweet, and it went sour,” Campbell said. “At the time, the wells around there were deemed to be sweet.”

The company has made improvements since then, Campbell noted.

“We went through all of the issues that were outlined in the report from the OGC and complied with their requests,” he said.

The company could still be fined for the leak.

“The case file for this incident remains open and under investigation as this (recent report) is part of what goes into making a determination around a possible contravention of the Oil and Gas Activities Act,” OGC spokesperson Alan Clay wrote in an email.

reporter@ahnfsj.ca