Researchers to find truth on Kerr farm

By Greg Nikkel / Weyburn Review
September 7, 2011 01:00 AM

Cam and Jane Kerr, at right, observe as scientists test their domestic well water for pH balance, turbidity and temperature on Wednesday. The scientists include, from left, Janice Dale, a geologist from the University of Regina, university student Thomas Ogilvie (behind Janice) and Brad Wolaver, centre, a research associate in hydrogeology from The University of Texas at Austin; he and another researcher from the university are heading up a research project into the soil and water on the Kerr farm, located south of the Cenovus plant near Goodwater, to see what or if any contamination exists from the oilfield operations in the area. The final report is due out on Dec. 12.

A team of scientists from The University of Texas at Austin, with assistance from the University of Regina, has converged on the Cam and Jane Kerr farm near Goodwater this past week to carry out the second part of an independent investigation to find out if the Kerrs farmland or groundwater has had any contamination from the nearby oil industry.

The study is being done by the International Performance Assessment Centre for Geologic Storage of Carbon Dioxide (IPAC-CO2), independent of the Kerrs, or of Cenovus Energy, which is the largest oil operation in their vicinity, with the Cenovus plant lying due north of the farm.

Some months ago, the Kerrs released findings of a private firm that indicated high levels of CO2 on their land, and questioned whether their land and groundwater had been contaminated by the work ongoing to extract oil by Cenovus Energy; in turn, Cenovus disputed the claim by the couple.

Thus, IPAC determined to conduct research independently of both the ground gases and of the water and find out what the true state of their land is, with the final report to be released on Dec. 12. The report will include the data collected by the researchers from The University of Texas, and data from Dr. Stuart Gilfillan of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, whose report is currently being compiled.

Gilfillan's work was to test for noble (or inert) gases on the Kerr farm, including helium, neon, argon, krypton and xenon.

According to IPAC's chief operating officer, Jerry Sherk "There are three distinct sources of noble gases within the subsurface; namely the Earth's crust, mantle and the atmosphere, with each source having a unique noble gas fingerprint. Because of these unique fingerprints, noble gases can be used as tracers."

Enter research associate Katherine Romanak from Texas, who has placed 10 test wells on the Kerr property, each of which will test the soil for major gases at three different levels, including carbon dioxide, nitrogen, methane and oxygen. The gases in the ground are brought up and run through a gas chromatograph, which analyzes what gases are present and in what concentrations. Plus, Romanak fills a bag from each test site with the gases to be sent to a lab for independent analysis, to confirm the analysis from her chromatograph in the field.

One of the issues she will be looking for is what level of CO2 is in the soil, as it is naturally-occurring, and where that CO2 came from, as determined by the noble gases, which provide the "fingerprint" of the source of the CO2.

The scientist pointed out, the issue is not the concentration of the CO2, as she has seen it occur naturally as high as 17 or 18 per cent; the alleged leak of CO2 on the Kerr farm was said to be around 11 per cent. One method she is using is to look at co-existing gases, particularly its relation to oxygen.

A method of determining the origin of CO2 is looking at their isotopes, except that the CO2 being injected by Cenovus has the same isotope as the CO2 found naturally in the Goodwater area, explained Romanak, "so we can't use the isotopic signature. We need a different way."

Thus the data provided by Dr. Gilfillan will be utilized, she added. "We want to understand what the gas is doing around the yard. The hole tests are set at different depths in each location, so we can determine what changes there are with the depths."

Some of the test holes go as deep as 19 feet, and some of the depths are as shallow as two feet, with three sensors set at three levels in each hole. Each sensor is packed in sand, with a layer of clay above and below to separate it from the other depths.

In explaining the purpose for IPAC's study, CEO Carmen Dybwad explained there is worldwide interest in what they're going to find. She noted when the Kerrs initially came out their claims, that news was reported literally around the world, and now there are several large CO2 sequestration projects that are waiting in limbo because of the concerns raised. They want to know if there is any substantiation to the claims; thus independent researchers were brought who have no stake or claim in this area, and no connection to either the Kerrs or to Cenovus Energy.

"All we're doing is fact-finding. We're doing this for the larger community. When a stakeholder is looking to develop a site for CO2 storage, you have to look at all the factors that come into play, such as whether the CO2 stays where you put it. What that provides then is information for the whole community," said Dybwad, adding that CO2 storage is a developing technology throughout the world, so if something is found that is wrong, "you go back and fix it. If there's no leak the project can go forward."

She added that IPAC are not the regulators of the industry, and are not the police, so this report is not meant to be pointing fingers, but to find out objectively what the state is of the ground and water on the Kerrs' farm.

"This technology has to move forward. There's a lot of projects around the world which are not going forward because of the impact of this news. Part of our role is to end the uncertainty right now," said Dybwad.

Over at the Kerrs domestic water well, Brad Wolaver, a hydrogeologist and research associate from Texas, was preparing to do water samples, along with Janice Dale, a geologist from the U of R.

"I'm focussing on the groundwater. We're going to be collecting water samples for analysis for dissolved inorganic carbon, which will be compared with dissolved gases and groundwater tested from two months ago (by Dr. Gilfillan)," said Wolaver.

His tests will come from four wells, including a 40-foot well for domestic drinking water, two being used on the neighbouring Thackeray farm, and one that was drilled 200 meters north of the domestic well.

While Cenovus welcomes the independent testing process, they have also hired an environmental firm out of Cochrane, Alta., Trium Environmental, as well as the British Geological Survey. Trium is taking dozens of soil samples around the Kerr farm, said Cenovus spokesperson Rhona Delfrari.

As well, the British Geological Survey had originally come in June to do their testing, but due to all the excess moisture and the flooding, they decided they will come back in October to conduct their tests.

The Survey has taken part in the research that has been ongoing by the Petroleum Technology Research Centre (PTRC) at the U of R for the past 11 years, since the injection of CO2 first began in the Weyburn Oil Field.

"We're not injecting CO2 in that area, so the PTRC hasn't done research in that area," added Delfrari. "We are very confident our CO2 is remaining 1.5 kilometres underground, and it's not migrating. As we want to do our due diligence, that's why we hired Trium in addition to what the PTRC has found."

The company "wants the truth to come out, and be clear to everybody. To have independent researchers doing this is good," said Delfrari, adding the research done by the PTRC has involved scientists from 30 countries around the world, who all agree that the CO2 is staying in place where it's being injected.

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