The Well from Hell

It was a disaster

As the events of the First World War played out in Europe, prospectors were attempting to strike it rich in Alberta. Although the province would eventually become an oil powerhouse, early development efforts were not always successful. In 1916, for example, Peace River Oils drilled a well that became known as Old Salty, because instead of finding petrochemicals, the company perforated a high-pressure saline aquifer. A crater quickly formed — ­swallowing up the drilling rig and discharging vast quantities of water.

A saline spill is a different beast than a leak of hydrocarbons. While both are bad, hydrocarbons can at least be biodegraded or burned. Salts cannot. In Hidden Scourge, the ecologist Kevin P. Timoney likens such spills to spraying seawater on your garden. They lack the sickening stench of an oil spill, but they can be equally devastating — even when the salinity is only a fraction of what might be found in the ocean. Reclaiming environments is often a complicated exercise in futility.

Old Salty has two other nicknames: the Well from Hell and the World’s Longest Blowout. Each of them is apt. The rupture that opened in 1916 was not capped until 2003. There were unsuccessful efforts along the way, including an attempt in 1988 that resulted in the release of 10,000 cubic metres of saline water onto nearby cropland. That same year, poisonous hydrogen sulphide was found in the spill. It wasn’t until 2001 that Environment Canada ordered the Alberta Energy Regulator to cap the site for good.

The silver lining in this story, Timoney notes, was a piece of dumb luck: the vast majority of the spill discharged directly into the Peace River, which diluted the contamination naturally as it moved to the Mackenzie River and then out to the Beaufort Sea. But even this good news should be taken with . . . well, a grain of salt, as there is insufficient information on the ecological effects of saline spills on aquatic environments. What is clear, however, is that Old Salty was a disaster that could have become a complete catastrophe.

In parts of the United States, between nine and eighteen barrels of saline water is ­produced for every barrel of oil. And plenty of it gets spilled. Drawing on data from over 100,000 incidents — in North Dakota, Montana, Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan, and Alberta — Timoney makes a comprehensive case that the regulation of this and other operations of the industry has been a failure. Regulation is particularly fruitless, he argues, in Alberta, with its culture of secrecy and incompetence. Consider that only one study on Old Salty is publicly available.

Timoney uses the phrase “captured regulator” multiple times, and he characterizes the Alberta Energy Regulator (and its earlier iterations) as a nigh useless entity, one designed, funded, and controlled by the industry it is supposed to monitor. The conflicts of interest are legion. Whether it actively encourages a culture of misinformation or simply fails to gather important data points, the regulator’s brazen embrace of private capital, at the expense of the environment, is almost comically absurd. Even more disheartening is that many spills occur at orphaned wells, which fall outside of the supposedly arm’s-length corporation’s purview — ­making them more ­difficult to track and monitor. Because their location is often unclear, even an ­environmentally conscious body would face a exceptionally ­difficult task in attempting to fully comprehend, let alone address, the problem.

Hidden Scourge is guided by Timoney’s genuine faith in environmental protection, accurate assessment, and reliable figures. He maintains a tight focus and balances technical jargon with helpful imagery and examples. Although his constant reassurance that ­readers can skip ­certain dense sections is f­rustrating — we need to be treated like adults if we are to be part of the reformed democracy he argues is an ­essential part of the solution — his ability to convey ­complexity is appreciated.

Like many books on environmentalism and environmental issues, Hidden Scourge does trip at the twenty-yard line, because Timoney’s discussion of politics seems to lack a solid theoretical foundation: He presents a real problem but not a real solution. Perhaps disaffected youth can bring about revolutionary change, but the author provides no clear evidence that they will. Interdisciplinary writing is important, but it works best when authors can approach the various disciplines with reasonable authority. Too many works on environmentalism, including this one, read as if the call for a compassionate politics has not already been made and engaged with in numerous forums — to no real effect.

It is difficult to avoid a feeling of uninspired déjà vu while reading Timoney. We need books that engage the bleakness of our current political and ecological paradigm in new ways; he offers more of the same. Still, because so few works have presented inland oil industry spills with so much clarity and detail, Hidden Scourge remains a worthwhile contribution.