February 13, 2010

FOCUS | Environmental engineering

Swiss lawsuit repercussions not likely to be felt in Canada

A Swiss geologist was recently acquitted of criminal charges after a geothermal power generation project he was working on set off a series of earthquakes causing $9 million in damages, but it’s unlikely to happen in B.C.

Although B.C.’s seismic potential and plentiful geothermal resources might sound like a cocktail for a similar disaster, experts say the province has more to lose by opting out of geothermal power generation.

Traditional geothermal systems draw hot water from wells drilled two to three kilometers into the earth and use it to generate hydro electricity.

The term is often inaccurately used to describe geoexchange systems, which harness solar energy from the earth’s crust for heating residential and commercial buildings.

The $60 million Swiss Deep Heat Mining Project was an Enhanced Geothermal System (EGS) with wells five kilometres deep.

Water is injected into the rock, fracturing it to release heat and using the steam to generate hydro.

The risk for similar problems in B.C. is low, said Ruben Arellano, energy projects director for Vancouver-based environmental engineer Hemmera Energy.

He said the province has different geology and its resources aren’t located near population centers.

“Switzerland and B.C. are entirely different tectonic settings. The Swiss case was drilling through a tectonically active area, and B.C. has less of those,” said Arellano.

“When you consider the depth of expertise we have here and the relatively few populated areas in B.C., I think the risk of such an event can be managed.”

Ian Moes, a lawyer with Vancouver-based construction law firm Kuhn & Co, said Canada’s Criminal Code doesn’t specifically address induced seismic activity, although Subsection 180 addresses nuisance behaviour that endangers the lives, safety, or health of the public, or causes physical injury.

“This section could apply to deep drilling, however it would be pretty novel,” he said.

“It is more likely that the offending company would be pursued in a private civil lawsuit for monetary damages.”

There are no Canadian decisions regarding seismic activity on record.

Canada has already had 100 years of success with deep drilling techniques, said Alison Thompson, chairperson and founder of Canadian Geothermal Energy Association (CanGEA).

“What do you think the oil and gas industry is doing? When you frack a well, you use the same technique,” she said. “It isn’t statistically impossible, but this isn’t something unique to geothermal. We would say the Swiss case was extreme bad luck.”

Despite having world-class resources, Canada's level of geothermal activity has remained eerily silent compared to other places in the world.

Thompson said it's been at a standstill in B.C. because the provincial government is not currently issuing permits or leases.

“We continue to work with industry on a weekly basis to try and get the government to re-open the program,” she said.

Meager Creek, B.C., west of Pemberton, is Canada's only geothermal site to hold an active lease.

It was originally drilled by BC Hydro in the 80s.

A project summary released by Western GeoPower Corp. in 2007 said exploration suggests a geothermal area of 4.5 to 7.5 square kilometres and an average temperature of 220 to 240 degrees Celsius, qualifying the project as having 100 MW or more of potential development capacity.

Western GeoPower Corp. merged with Polaris Geothermal, Inc., RAM Power Corp., and GTO Resources under the umbrella of RAM Power Corp., headquartered in Reno, Nevada in 2009.

RAM Power Corp. declined comment on the current status of the Meager Creek Project.

Jake Jacobs, media relations for Energy, Mines, & Petroleum Resources said the ministry will be holding a public disposition for geothermal rights in March 2010 and intends to hold two more later in the year.

“A growing interest in geothermal energy resulted in the ministry reviewing how to move forward with geothermal tenuring,” he said.

“The upcoming disposition is the start.” In the meantime, B.C. is losing potential investment dollars.

“Most of the companies actively involved with geothermal power generation that are trading on the Toronto stock exchange are Canadian, and most tried to do work in B.C., which has the country's best assets,” said Thompson.

“But, they eventually went elsewhere because there is only so much public money a company can raise before the time has come and gone.”

Unlike wind and solar power, which are cyclical and offer low production guarantees, geothermal power has 100 per cent capacity all the time and long-term environmental risks are low, said Arellano.

“If you imagine the earth as being the size of a balloon, the depth of drilling the industry is doing is not thicker than the skin of the balloon in terms of scale,” he said.

“There is a whole lot of energy in the earth and we are just catching the 'burps and sneezes' so to speak.”

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