PICS researchers with Natural Gas Project

PICS-supported research is informing policy development aimed at assessing risks and preventing potential contamination of Northeastern BC water systems due to oil and gas development.

Truck with wastewater headed to a wastewater disposal facility

The race to extract and market shale gas from BC’s northeast has not been matched by advances in the scientific understanding of its environmental impacts beyond climate, posing challenges for effective regulation of the industry and creating potential risks to regional water security

Helping to provide answers to these challenges have been researchers from the PICS Natural Gas Development and Maximising Net Social Benefits project, whose hazard-specific water vulnerability maps are now being used by industry regulators.

Northeast BC is home to significant shale natural gas reserves, with four major plays identified; the largest and most developed being the Montney, as well as the Cordova Embayment, Horn River and Liard Basin. Technological advancements in hydraulic fracturing and directional drilling has made these unconventional sources accessible and economically feasible, driving interest in new ventures.

Industrial development has the potential to impact water quality due to wastewater spills and leakage along pipeline and trucking corridors, and to also affect the quantity of water supply through consumption. Hydraulic fracturing and oil and gas production generate wastewater often containing numerous chemicals and high concentrations of salts, metals, and metalloids, which can pose a threat to drinking water supplies and healthy aquatic ecosystems.

Identifying the geologic sites most vulnerable to water quality and quantity deterioration from shale gas operations has been a missing piece of the puzzle taken up by PICS-supported post-doc, Shannon Holding, and Zachery McKoen, an undergraduate summer research assistant, under the supervision of Simon Fraser University (SFU) professor Diana Allen.

The researchers developed a new approach for mapping water security vulnerability that shows the spatial distribution of specific hazard threats alongside the susceptibility of water systems to those threats across the Northeast BC Peace Region. The focus was on vulnerability to the quality and quantity of both surface water and shallow groundwater (within approximately 30 metres of ground surface). The below maps were produced.

Groundwater Quality
Figure 1. Groundwater Quality (Northeast BC Peace Region). (A) Susceptibility: Assessed using the DRASTIC method based on: Depth to water table; Recharge; Aquifer media; Soil media; Topography; Impact of vadose zone; and Conductivity. (B) Hazard threat: associated with activities related to shale gas development (location of facilities, wells, roads, and pipelines). At time of mapping there were 30,711 recorded oil and gas wells (active, disposal, abandoned etc.) Hazard threat is represented as weighted cumulative density.

Surface Water Quality
Figure 2. Surface Water Quality (Northeast BC Peace Region). (A) Susceptibility: Potential for overland flow, representing increased likelihood of migration of surface spills into surface water bodies such as lakes, rivers and streams. (B) Hazard Threat: Associated with activities related to shale gas development (facilities, wells, roads, and pipelines). Hazard threat is represented as weighted cumulative density.

Groundwater Quantity
Figure 3. Groundwater Quantity (Northeast BC Peace Region). (A) Susceptibility: Estimated aquifer supply available for shale gas development needs (based on geological materials and existing domestic water use). (B) Hazard threat: Water withdrawal for shale gas development. Represented as density map based on abstraction rates of source water wells used by the oil and gas industry.

Surface Water Quantity
Figure 4. Surface Water Quantity (Northeast BC Peace Region). (A) Susceptibility: Estimated volume of surface water discharge available for shale gas development needs. (B) Hazard threat: Total approved surface water withdrawal volumes (including short-term and licenses) per watershed.

Researchers then combined the hazard threat and susceptibility indicators to create hazard-specific vulnerability maps for the region’s groundwater quality and quantity, and its surface water quality and quantity. In particular the research identified broad areas surrounding Fort St. John and Dawson Creek where water quality vulnerability is high.

Vulnerability
Figure 5. Vulnerability (Northeast BC Peace Region). (A) Groundwater Quality, (B) Groundwater Quantity, (C) Surface Water Quality, and (D) Surface Water Quantity.

The approach developed through this research has potential use world-wide. Dr. Allen says the objective is not that these particular maps will be used indefinitely because datasets will eventually date – for example, at the time of mapping, the groundwater use by industry was low but could grow.  Rather, she says their approach for mapping water security vulnerability—using the hazard threat and susceptibility indicators—could be used to assess other shale gas areas. The work also identified priority areas for further research, monitoring and policy development.

In a statement provided by the BC Oil and Gas Commission, the regulatory agency said it is using the data files generated (from this study) to support the development of a map-based groundwater investigation tool. This tool will assist with the development of policies, procedures and guidance documents that will determine the requirements for groundwater investigations on abandoned oil and gas sites to assess groundwater quality and protect groundwater resources.

Dr. Allen recently served on the BC Hydraulic Fracturing Scientific Review Panel.

Also contributing to scientific knowledge about oil and gas operations in the region has been separate research by PICS-supported SFU students supervised by Dr. Allen; Jennifer Dierauer, who explored how climate change in the Peace region might impact water availability for the thirsty oil and gas industry; Matthew Simons, who explored how wastewater disposal plumes move in deep aquifers; and Samantha Morgan, who looked at the groundwater resource potential in buried valley aquifers. Chelsea Notte, under the supervision of SUF professor Nancy Olewiler, looked at policy issues around shale developments.

Financial support for this body of research was provided by PICS, Simon Fraser University, the Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations (FLNRO), and the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, Kyoto, Japan.

Publications:

Holding, S., Mc Koen, Z. and Allen, D.M. (2018). Groundwater and Surface Water Quality and Quantity Vulnerability Mapping in Northeast British Columbia. Technical Report submitted to BC Oil and Gas Commission, June 2018, 17 pp.

Holding, S. and Allen, D.M. 2015. Final Report: Shallow Groundwater Intrinsic Vulnerability Mapping in Northeast British Columbia. Report prepared for the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions (PICS) and the BC Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (FLNRO), November 2015, 41 pp. 

Holding, S., Allen, D.M., Notte, C., and Olewiler, N. (2017). Enhancing water security in a rapidly developing shale gas region. Journal of Hydrology: Regional Studies 11 (2017) 266-27.

Allen, D.M., Holding, S. and McKoen, Z. (2018) Hazard-Specific Vulnerability Mapping for Water Security in a Shale Gas Context. In: Endo, A. and Oh, T. (Eds) Water-Energy-Food Nexus : Human-Environmental Security in the Asia-Pacific Ring of Fire, pp. 33-43.. Springer.

Dierauer, J., Allen, D.M. and Whitfield, P.H. (2018). Exploring future water demand and climate change impacts on water availability in the Peace Region of British Columbia, Canada. In: Endo, A. and Oh, T. (Eds) Water-Energy-Food Nexus : Human-Environmental Security in the Asia-Pacific Ring of Fire, pp. 45-54. Springer.

Simons, M.S., Allen, D.M., Kirste, D. and Welch, L.A. (2018): Modelling the Disposal of Highly Saline Wastewater in the Paddy and Cadotte Members, Northeastern British Columbia (NTS 093P); in Geoscience BC Summary of Activities 2017: Energy, Geoscience BC, Report 2018-4, p. 87–96.

Simons, M.S., Allen, D.M., Kirste, D. and Welch, L.A. (2017). Numerical modelling of highly saline wastewater disposal in Northeast British Columbia. GeoOttawa 2017, 70th Canadian Geotechnical Conference and the 12th Joint CGS/IAH-CNC Groundwater Conference, Ottawa, October 1-4, 2017.(full proceedings paper)

Morgan, S.E., Allen, D.M., Kirste, D. and Salas, C. (2017) Investigating the role of buried valley aquifer systems in the regional hydrogeology of the Peace River region, northeastern British Columbia (parts of NTS 094A, B); in Geoscience BC Summary of Activities 2016, Geoscience BC, Report 2017-1, p. 63–68.

Morgan, S.E., Allen, D.M., Kirste, D. and Salas, C.J. (2017) Using Petrel to integrate geological and geophysical datasets for investigating the three-dimensional hydrostratigraphic architecture of a buried valley network. GeoOttawa 2017, 70th Canadian Geotechnical Conference and the 12th Joint CGS/IAH-CNC Groundwater Conference, Ottawa, October 1-4, 2017. (full proceedings paper)