Let The Science Do The Talking At Weyburn

By: Tim O’Connor

Canadian academics, government officials and petroleum industry insiders have undoubtedly had their hands full these past two weeks. 

On January 11, EcoJustice, a Canadian non-profit organization broke a story that Canada’s most prominent carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) project in Weyburn, Saskatchewan had been leaking CO2 for several years, expressing concern that no one in Canada was doing anything about it.   

The press release, citing a recently published site assessment performed by Petro-Find, referenced measurements of high CO2 concentrations in the air and soil, nearby animal carcasses, visible oil sheens, algae growth and foaming gravel pits as indications that something was drastically wrong with the project that has been injecting CO2 1,500 meters below the surface for the past 11 years.  

If these observations reflect leaking CO2, the Petro-Find report would call into question one of the world’s best examples of a successful CCS project (more than 13 million tons sequestered up to this point), dealing a major setback to a technology that many consider a critical tool for fighting climate change.

To understand the issues raised by the report, the Canadian research institution Petroleum Technology Research Centre (PTRC), a group comprised of Canadian CCS experts from academia, government and industry, released its own report on January 19, questioning the methods and findings of the Petro-Find study. 

Where Petro-Find had concluded that high CO2 concentrations were from the CCS project, PTRC noted that natural soil biological processes were likely responsible for the observed patterns.  Where Petro-Find said it was practically irrefutable that Weyburn was leaking, PTRC found problems with the analysis and suggested that the conclusions were flawed, questionable at best, with little evidence that anything was happening.

So, what’s the truth?  Is this a case of whistle blowing, exposing problems with decades of international scientific research corroborated by the International Energy Agency, or is it, in the words of one skeptic, a hoax involving a dead cat?  Well, the truth has to be based on where good science leads us, and something that both CCS supporters and opponents need to focus on: the science, not the rhetoric.

In the rush to find the silver bullet to solve climate change, there will be some good ideas that work, and there will be some ideas that remind us of the early reports of cold fusion from the 1990s.  While we aggressively work on real solutions, it is important to remain outcome neutral and let the science do the talking.  If the science shows that the solution works, great.  If the science shows that we have a busted hand, let’s ask the hard questions and be open to exploring other ideas.

CCS is a solution that has been corroborated several times by science.  Yet science tells us that you can’t just dig a hole, stick a pipe in and expect it to work.  The trick is following the correct procedures, choosing an appropriate location and performing rigorous monitoring to make sure everything is going according to plan.  Weyburn, by all reports, seems to have been doing things right for years. 

Of course, the reports of oil sheens on surface ponds and bubbling soil pits near Weyburn are concerning– especially if people or animals have been affected.  The Canadian research institution IPAC-CO2 is said to be looking into the Weyburn situation and doing more scientific measurements at the site. This sounds like the right way to go to me.

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