On December 12, 2012, the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) released a report (PDF) on the blowout of an oil well that occurred earlier this year near Innisfail, Alberta. The report came out a week after the ERCB released draft regulations (PDF) aimed at preventing interwellbore communication during hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operations – the same issue that the ERCB’s concluded led to the Innisfail blowout.

The Blowout

The blowout occurred at a conventional oil well near Innisfail, Alberta. As a result of the blowout, nearly 500 barrels of oil, water and fracking fluid was released to the surface, impacting an area approximately 200 x 225 metres.

The ERCB concluded that the blowout occurred as a result of fracking operations in a neighbouring well that had inadequate separation to the conventional oil well.

The two wellbores passed within 129 metres of each other at their nearest point. The conventional oil wellbore was a vertical well in production; the wellbore in which fracking operations were being carried out was a horizontal well. Both wells were targeting the same geologic formation and communication between the two wells occurred within this formation at a depth of approximately 1850 metres.

As a conventional well, its components were not pressure rated and, once communication between it and the fracking well occurred, the well failed, causing fracking fluid, oil and natural gas to be released at the surface. There was no release at the fracking well site.

In its report, the ERCB noted that the fracking operator did not notify the operator of the neighbouring conventional well that fracking operations were about to commence. The ERCB also noted that no regulations were in place to restrict the type of operation carried out, or to specify the minimum distance between fracking wells and other wellbores.

As a result, enforcement action was not taken against the fracking operator; however, the ERCB is introducing regulations to guard against future incidents.

The Fracking Regulations

On December 6, 2012, the ERCB released draft regulations related to sub-surface issues associated with fracking activities in Alberta. The draft regulations are specifically aimed at the prevention of interwellbore communication—the cause of the Innisfail blowout—and the prevention of impacts to aquifers, water wells and the surface.

The proposed regulations establish obligations on fracking operators with respect to the identification and assessment of other wells within the “fracture planning zone” (FPZ). For each well within the FPZ an operator must assess its well integrity, undertake a risk assessment and establish control and mitigation measures to maintain well integrity. The operator must also establish a monitoring plan for each well within the FPZ and a response plan in the event of an incident.

The proposed regulations also require the fracking operator to follow guidelines with respect to nonsaline aquifers and restrict fracking operations within 100 metres vertical and 200 metres horizontal separation from any water well. The ERCB is accepting feedback on the draft regulations until January 13, 2013.

Conclusion

In its News Release that accompanied the investigation report, the ERCB noted the rarity of incidents like the Innisfail blowout. Nonetheless, the ERCB has taken the step of introducing an additional layer of regulation in an attempt to mitigate both the real and perceived risks of fracking operations.