Wells as a solution: Why drilling should lead our economic recovery

Image: Michael Tenove

At a time when it feels like all we can see are problems, it is worth taking a moment to think about what solutions should come next.

There has been a lot of talk about wells being one of the problems we need to fix in Alberta, and that’s true. But wells are also a solution. Wells have been a big part of Alberta’s financial success and they could be one of the things that take us far into the future. We need to start thinking about them much differently.

The question we ask is: Are there viable solutions that can set Alberta up for leadership positions into the next 50 years while immediately stimulating our economy? There are, and some of them are familiar and build on projects that we have known in Alberta’s conventional oil and gas development.

A big opportunity for Alberta exists in two areas: drilling new, specialized wells for geothermal, lithium, and hydrogen production, as well as utilizing the province’s inactive and abandoned wells for innovative energy projects.

An exciting opportunity within Alberta is to extract lithium, a key element in many energy storage technologies, from some reservoirs that produce more wastewater than oil, as well as explore for these brines specifically. New drilling activity is required to produce this valuable resource, and these new wells are ideally located for minimal disturbance on existing well sites with valuable amenities like roads, power, and geological data.

E3 Metals, a Calgary-based company, is helping pioneer this industry and demonstrating the value that large scale lithium production could unlock for Alberta. The demand for this commodity, sometimes referred to as “white petroleum,” continues to increase along with the world's ever growing hunger for lightweight consumer electronics and high capacity storage solutions. Alberta could participate in supplying this valuable commodity to the world by leveraging our current energy infrastructure, and drilling expertise.

Besides lithium production, another shovel-ready idea involves using the deepest, hottest wells as geothermal exploration and monitoring wells. This could help companies know where to place new, wide-bore geothermal production wells. These new wells could create a renewable energy drilling industry in Canada. Due to increased drilling depths, well size, and technical complexity, geothermal drilling operations can take up to four times longer in drilling days than conventional oil and gas drilling. Terrapin Geothermics calculates that 186 wide bore geothermal wells could result in over $900 millions in drilling activity.

Small solar energy installations on existing wellsites is another economic idea ripe for implementation. The idea is to use wellsites with existing grid connections as small solar energy production sites. For the past two years, the RenuWell Project has been tackling this challenge, and continues to pilot in Taber, Alberta.

Inactive oil and gas wells can also find new economic life in the low-carbon economy by being converted to hydrogen production wells. Proton Technologies has been able to use their patented technology to convert different types of hydrocarbon reservoirs into hydrogen mines and thermal generators, while leaving the carbon and other pollutants in the ground.

We believe Alberta’s ambition should be to invest half or more of the new money for job stimulus in projects that will create new economic opportunities for another 50+ years; and not just to clean up today’s challenges. Let’s leverage what value exists in all these assets, and make sure these new investments pay off for generations to come.

– Juli Rohl is an animator with the Energy Futures Lab. Sean Collins is founder and president of Terrapin Geothermics and an Energy Futures Lab Fellow