April 17, 2006

New baseline water well testing standard

In other environmental protection initiatives, a new standard coming into effect May 1, 2006 will require companies wanting to drill for shallow coalbed methane (i.e. above the base of groundwater protection) to offer to test rural water wells prior to drilling. The government had announced its intention to introduce such a standard earlier this year, together with a groundwater mapping program, in support of Alberta's Water for Life strategy (EcoLog Week March 13, 2006).

The Baseline Water Well Testing for Coalbed Methane Operations standard will require coalbed methane (CBM) companies to offer landowners baseline testing and to complete such testing before drilling begins. The cost of testing will be borne by the CBM companies, who will also be responsible for making the results available to Alberta Environment and to the landowner.

The results filed with Alberta Environment will become part of a new water well testing information database, which will be used to evaluate the baseline testing standard after six months and again at 12 months. A public report will subsequently be published.

Water wells for which testing must be offered and completed include any active wells within at least a 600-metre radius of new or re-completed CBM wells. The tests will measure the water well's production capability, water quality (including bacteria), and the absence or presence of gas in the water well (including methane gas).

"The testing information will provide a scientific snapshot in time of a landowner's well water before shallow coalbed methane drilling takes place," Environment Minister Boutilier explained.

"Ninety per cent of rural water supply comes from groundwater," said Don Johnson, president of the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties (AAMD&C). "We believe baseline well water testing will protect our rural water supplies by providing data to measure and track possible side effects of coalbed methane activity. The AAMD&C urges our members, and rural ratepayers to take advantage of water well testing to protect themselves, their farms, and the future of the province's water."

The standard was developed jointly by Alberta Environment and the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board (EUB) and will be implemented and enforced by the latter agency, noted provincial Energy Minister Greg Melchin. "Water, and specifically baseline testing has been a critical issue for Albertans and this was reinforced during our consultation on coalbed methane," he noted, adding, "This initiative is a big part of the future development of this resource."

As of March 2006, EUB figures indicate that more than 6,000 CBM wells have been drilled so far in Alberta.

Although some companies already voluntarily test water wells, the new government standard will ensure accurate, consistent measurement of well water quality and quantity prior to any shallow drilling for coalbed methane.

The baseline testing requirement currently applies only to CBM activity. The Alberta government is working with industry and communities, however, to examine whether it should be extended to other oil and gas activities and to other water sources such as springs and dugouts.

Coalbed methane refers to methane, the main component of natural gas, which comes from coal deposits. It is considered an unconventional form of natural gas since it is attached to the coal in coal seams instead of being contained in the normal porous and permeable rock formations that host conventional natural gas.

More information is available on the Water for Life Web site, www.waterforlife.gov.ab.ca (click on the coalbed methane link), from the EUB, 403/297-8311, Web site www.eub.ca, or on the Alberta Energy Web site, www.energy.gov.ab.ca/2754.asp.

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