Oil and gas wells that leak methane, a potent greenhouse gas, are a bigger risk to the environment than fracking, according to a report by University of Waterloo researchers.

Hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, is a controversial method used by the energy industry that involves injecting high-pressure water into wells to extract oil and gas from rock. “Hydraulic fracturing is not the main risk,” says Maurice Dusseault, a professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences. “The main risk is poor well completion that can cause methane leakage.”

Maurice Dusseault

Maurice Dusseault, professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, examines natural fractures in oil source rock

Methane is not a large public health risk, nor is it toxic, explains Dusseault. Its major impact is on climate change.

Waterloo report details methane gas risk

Dusseault, along with Daniel Macdonald, a graduate student in Earth and Environmental Sciences and Richard E. Jackson, an adjunct professor at Waterloo who works at Geofirma Engineering Ltd., recently produced a report that details the risks and explores solutions.

The risk can be mitigated with political will from governments and attention from the major natural resource companies, says Dusseault, who, along with his colleagues, is urging that such measures be taken.

Methane from leaking wells can also enter shallow aquifers and cause sour drinking water, something that isn’t toxic, but can make the groundwater useless, Dusseault noted. In rare cases, when seepage accumulates in a closed space, it can also be an explosion hazard, although few cases are known in Canada of this happening.

Shale gas well

Shale gas well pad in British Columbia

“I don’t want to raise unreasonable fears,” said Dusseault. “This is not a huge public health issue, but I do not agree with the widespread view in the oil and gas industry that the problem can be completely ignored – and (U.S.) President Obama agrees that methane escaping into the atmosphere is not desirable.”

Government should ensure wells are more leakproof

Dusseault said he believes that in Alberta and British Columbia, the oil and gas industries are well regulated and do an excellent job compared to almost any other location worldwide. However, he and his colleagues suggest that they could do even more by ensuring that wells are more leakproof.

“The natural resources industry and government regulatory bodies are developing resources that belong to each province --that is, to you and me,” said Dusseault. “They have a responsibility to act and address these concerns, not just dismiss them. That is not good corporate governance or good government.”