UBC, partners launch groundwater monitoring project in Northeast BC

Peace River. Photo: UBC EERI.

Thirty new groundwater monitoring wells will be installed across the Peace Region in northeast B.C. as part of a collaboration between UBC researchers, the BC Oil and Gas Commission, Geoscience BC, Simon Fraser University, and the University of Calgary. 

“The Commission oversees the safe development and operation of oil and gas wells in British Columbia,” said BC Oil and Gas Commission Commissioner Paul Jeakins. “Data from these new research groundwater monitoring wells will provide more information to our specialists and help strengthen the Commission’s oversight of the oil and gas industry.” 

The research team includes scientists with expertise on groundwater, geology and petroleum engineering. The project is being led by UBC’s Energy and Environment Research Initiative (EERI)

“Potential impacts to groundwater from energy resource development are controversial and scientifically-based answers to many questions related to this are needed,” said Aaron Cahill, principal investigator of the project and co-director of UBC’s EERI. “In particular, more information is needed on groundwater conditions in areas of resource development in BC, including levels of methane and other hydrocarbons close to oil and gas wells. This new research project will generate high quality scientific data to address concerns related to resource development in the Peace Region.”  

The project team will install its first eight monitoring wells in the Peace Region this summer. The field program will continue next year, as more wells will be drilled in the spring and completed in the fall of 2019, with the project concluding in spring 2020. 

“These 30 wells will provide a legacy of permanent scientifically-designed monitoring wells,” says Geoscience BC chief scientific officer Carlos Salas. “This infrastructure will allow ongoing monitoring of groundwater trends and cumulative effects in northeast B.C. for decades to come.” 

The project, funded primarily by Geoscience BC with a significant contribution provided by the BC Oil and Gas Commission, will cost $1.5 million over three years. 

Project Goals

  • Assess baseline groundwater conditions including methane levels in the Peace Region of northeast B.C.
  • Build on and/or complement the existing suite of methane-related research underway at UBC and elsewhere.
  • Provide data to support the Commission’s regulatory policy and technical guidance related to groundwater protection and gas migration.
  • Provide data to support other government science initiatives and regulatory policies related to groundwater (for example, the B.C. government’s domestic well sampling program and aquifer mapping and science initiatives).
  • Support the long term sustainability and viability of continued oil and gas development in the Montney region.
  • Address recommendations related to groundwater monitoring made in several previous reports.
  • Support the mandate of the Northeast Water Strategy.
  • Include community and First Nations engagement as a key element.

Groundwater Monitoring Research Project FAQs

Why undertake this project? 

There is an overall lack of information and scientific research regarding groundwater in northeast B.C., and particularly concerning groundwater methane and its origins. Methane is naturally present in all groundwater systems at some level but can also be related to oil and gas development. Data gained from this project should help to fill in some knowledge gaps on both natural groundwater methane and methane that may potentially be related to oil and gas development. 

Where will the 30 monitoring wells be located and who determines that? 

Exact locations for the new wells are currently being determined based on a comprehensive desk study and review of existing data. The locations will be decided by the research team with guidance from a technical advisory committee based on the scientific goals of the project. 

Will there be any community engagement? 

Yes. A public open house and information sharing session is being planned for this spring, prior to commencing the project. Additionally, regular updates and information will be provided to communities throughout the project to ensure information regarding the proposed work plan and ongoing updates is available. 

What are ‘scientifically designed’ groundwater monitoring wells? 

Scientifically designed groundwater wells are ‘precision’ based monitoring wells designed and built to a much higher standard than a typical domestic water well. Very detailed information is collected on the geology before and during the drilling process which is then used to target specific zones in an aquifer. In comparison, domestic water wells are less exact and aim simply to get the most water from as shallow as possible and provide less information on the aquifer. 

Is there any risk from drilling these monitoring wells and what will the impact be to the surrounding environment? 

No, these wells will be drilled according to all regulations and standards for water well drilling and with full safety and environmental plans in place. 

Will the results of this study and the data coming from the monitoring wells be publicly available? 

Yes. Ultimately results will be provided in reports and also published in scientific journals. A key aim of the project is to make available the results and findings of the project. 

If, during the study, a monitoring well shows elevated methane levels in a specific aquifer – will there be action taken to halt oil and gas activities that might be in the area? 

The intent of the project is that the results will be considered collectively to inform a broad understanding of general trends regarding groundwater methane and chemistry characteristics for the study region. Nearby oil and gas activities will not be halted based on the results of a sample from a groundwater monitoring well. Should elevated methane be indicated at a specific monitoring well location, the need for and approaches for any other further investigation would be assessed by the Commission, with consideration of other site-specific information as well as knowledge gained regarding groundwater methane determined from this study. 

“This infrastructure will allow ongoing monitoring of groundwater trends and cumulative effects in northeast B.C. for decades to come.”