David Lea, Oakville Beaver|May 23, 2012 – 3:50 PM

Near tragedy sparks new drilling rules

Near tragedy sparks new drilling rules. Oakville MPP Kevin Flynn. Oakville

In the wake of a potential tragedy in Oakville after a borehole was drilled in a local neighbourhood, Ontario is now strengthening regulations around drilling for geothermal energy systems.
The Dalton McGuinty government announced Friday that vertical, closed-loop drilling for geothermal energy systems will now require provincial approval with the installers also required to consult with a certified geoscientist before drilling.

“I was especially proud of my government for how quickly they acted. The minister’s response was sensible, it was balanced, but it was timely,” said Oakville MPP Kevin Flynn.

The new regulations, which take effect immediately, also require installers to develop an emergency plan before drilling.

Geothermal energy is a form of renewable energy that leverages underground temperatures to heat and cool buildings.

Oakville Mayor Rob Burton, Oakville council and the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs called on the Province to regulate drilling for geothermal energy systems after a natural gas deposit was struck in the Maple Grove Drive/Lakeshore Road area during this type of drilling on April 19.

This disturbed pocket of gas leaked into a home about 100 metres away. When the homeowner noticed the sump pump bubbling like a milkshake, Union Gas and the Oakville Fire Department were notified.

It led to a frenzied search by the fire department and Union Gas for the source of the gas leak.

The borehole was eventually discovered and potential disaster averted.

In the aftermath, Oakville Fire Chief Lee Grant said the development of new techniques for installing geothermal energy systems, particularly vertical drilling had created a regulatory gap in Ontario.

Grant said that while there are regulations and safety protocols concerning drilling for oil, natural gas or a well, there are none for digging a deep hole for any other purpose.

The provincial government move to close that gap was applauded this week by Oakville’s public servants.

“Oakville council is pleased that Minister (Jim) Bradley and the McGuinty government have listened to our concerns and the concerns of The Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs in acting to strengthen the requirements on borehole drilling for geothermal energy installations,” said Burton.

“The Town supports the Province’s commitment to promote renewable energy sources in a way that protects the health and safety of our community.”

Flynn agreed.

“It makes a lot of sense obviously given the circumstances. I’ll be the first to admit I had no idea there was natural gas under Oakville. With that knowledge in hand it would only make sense if you took a look to see if there was a need for regulation.

“In this case, with the circumstances in Oakville, the evidence is quite clear there is a need for regulation,” the MPP said.

Ted Kantrowitz, vice president of the Canadian GeoExchange Coalition (CGC), said his organization is urging its industry to review the new requirements and to take full responsibility to implement them immediately on all job sites.

Kantrowitz said clarification is needed with regard to who the new regulations will apply to.

“As we said earlier, it is clear this was not a geothermal-specific incident, but could have happened with any non-petroleum driller engaged in drilling a shallow borehole in the area.

“This includes water-well drilling, foundation pile drilling, routine construction drilling, test hole or other types of exploratory drilling, all of which are equally routine in Ontario.

“CGC has records of thousands of geothermal boreholes in Ontario as of this writing; there are tens of thousands of other types of shallow boreholes throughout the province,” wrote Kantrowitz in an e-mail.

“As gas pockets may be found across southern Ontario, and are already anticipated in drilling industry best practice as well as existing regulation, we at CGC will specifically seek clarification regarding whether all Ontario drillers who drill shallow boreholes in southern Ontario will now be required to enforce this temporary regulation — i.e. hiring geotechnical engineers for construction drilling approvals — as we would expect. Given the Town and the Province’s quick and severe reaction on this, I have to believe that these other drillers are just as much in danger of finding natural gas unexpectedly even though they execute due diligence as our geothermal driller did.”

Kantrowitz said the CGC would publicize the new regulations to more than 4,000 Ontario stakeholders on its mailing lists.

The Ontario Ground Water Association (OGWA) supported Burton’s concerns about drilling of vertical boreholes for geothermal heating systems.

The organization issued a statement after the incident in Oakville resulted in the evacuation of a home near the drilling site. The OGWA called for regulation.

The Ministry of the Environment will consult with industry stakeholders in the coming months on the new regulations and will also be conducting inspections to ensure installers are meeting safety standards.

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