Environmental Protection Order: Study Finds Connection Between Oil Industry and Earthquakes

Credit: AER

On Thursday, the Alberta Energy Regulator declared an environmental protection order for an oil and gas company located in Calgary.

This order was prompted after a joint study performed by the University of Alberta and Stanford University revealed an industry link between in situ bitumen recovery and a series of earthquakes that occurred in the Peace River area last November.

In their early November news release, the AER stated that “initial findings point to natural tectonic activity.”

However, the study concluded that the earthquakes were likely caused by the disposal of oilsands wastewater.

“This study shows that … long-term operations have the potential to cause earthquakes,” said a geoscience researcher with Stanford and one of the lead researchers, Ryan Schulz.

The AER issued an environmental protection order for Obsidian Energy per sections 113 and 241 of the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act after the study was made public.

“The AER has issued this order due to a series of induced seismic events that occurred between November 29, 2022, and March 16, 2023, in the Peace River region,” said spokesperson Karen Keller in a statement.

“An investigation conducted by the Alberta Geological Society (AGS), a branch of the AER, has concluded that Obsidian’s disposal operation induced the seismic events.”

In the statement, it is said that the disposal operation would include a well that is allowed to inject water into the Leduc Formation. The statement also says that “the unique geological features of the area also contributed to the seismic events.”

Under the order, Obsidian must:

  • submit plans and take actions acceptable to the AER to reduce the frequency and magnitude of the events.
  • establish seismic monitoring in the surrounding area that detects events above a local magnitude of 2.0 ML.
  • install accelerometers at strategic locations within a 10 kilometres radius of the disposal operation to measure vibration.

“While there is no evidence of damages or injuries from these events, this order and subsequent investigation reflects our commitment to Albertans to ensure safe, efficient, orderly, and environmentally responsible development,” said Keller.

After a spill of produced water in 2019, the regulator told the company to shut down a well and the equipment that went with it.

In its order, the AER said that when staff went to the site 40 kilometres northwest of Drayton Valley, they saw that the spill was not contained and was bigger than was first reported. 

“This kind of study allows us to look at both sides of the coin, and just kind of reminds us that there’s a lot of data that needs to be excavated and examined,” said a professor of geophysics at the U of Alberta who worked on the study, Jeff Gu.

“If indeed these [earthquake events] are caused by [or] associated with the injection of disposal water, then we … can all kind of gather and then the energy regulators as well as the operators in the area, they can certainly make some certain plans on the steps in the future in terms of hazard mitigation.” 

The researchers hope that their study will encourage more companies to use seismic monitoring to keep a closer eye on their operations.

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Written by Olivia Woods

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