The accidental, and potentially disastrous, discovery of a natural gas deposit recently during a geothermal drilling project in an Oakville neighbourhood has led Mayor Rob Burton to call for provincial regulation of such activities.
Burton announced Thursday, he had contacted the Province urging it to place a moratorium on deep well or borehole drilling for geothermal energy installations until the necessary regulations can be put in place to ensure public safety.

“This council supports the Province’s commitment to promoting renewable energy sources, however, we are very concerned that unregulated drilling poses a serious risk to the safety of our residents,” said Burton.
“Under the Green Energy Act, 2009, the Town cannot pass bylaws that would prevent or restrict the installation of ground source energy systems so it is imperative that the Province take action.”
There are a number of ways geothermal energy can be harnessed by residences.
One particular geothermal heating system utilizes a vertical hole, which is drilled into the earth so heat can be absorbed from the earth to heat the home in winter and cooler temperatures can be absorbed to cool the house in summer.
Burton’s request follows an April 19 incident in the Maple Grove Drive/Lakeshore Road area.
Oakville Fire Chief Lee Grant said a contractor was digging a hole for a home’s geothermal heating system and had reached a depth of between 380-540 feet when the drill struck a pocket of natural gas.
As natural gas has no odour in its natural state, the contractor was unaware of what had happened and simply went home at the end of the day after covering the borehole to keep dirt out.
With the top of the hole blocked, the gas began escaping into a home about 100 metres away.
“A homeowner detected the noise of bubbling in their basement and, searching their basement, found their sump pump hole foaming, looking like a big milkshake,” said Grant.
“For lack of any other explanation, they figured there must be a gas leak and called Union Gas. (They) saw this very unusual occurrence and contacted our department so we could provide the public safety component and assist them.”
Union Gas and the Oakville Fire Department began searching the area for what was initially believed to be a damaged gas line. Fire officials knocked on doors so they could test neighbouring homes for the presence of gas.
As no permit is required to drill a hole for a geothermal installation, Grant said the fire department was unaware of the borehole until Union Gas’ detection equipment led them to it.
At this point, the hole was uncovered allowing the gas to vent.
Grant said the situation could have been disastrous if the gas had been allowed to build up to the point where it became combustible.
“One thing I have to say is how lucky everyone was,” said Grant.
“We could be talking about a well driller who was severely injured, a new house that may have been burned down, another house that could have exploded rather than the people finding this bubbling thing. While it has been a very long process for us, this is really a very good news story. We are just now trying to make sure this can’t happen again.”
Grant said he and the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs are joining Burton in calling on the Province to develop appropriate regulations.
He said the danger is relatively new. While the use of geothermal energy has been taking place for more than 10 years, the designs for its installation continue to change.
“Originally they buried horizontal pipes in the ground like a septic system and circulated the fluid five or six feet down in the ground over a large area to absorb the heat,” said Grant.
“Then, because lots are small, they started drilling multiple holes for these installations. Now I think to make it economical, they drill one deep hole instead of five or six shallow holes and that practice has just emerged in the last year or so.”
Grant said these changes appear to have created a regulatory gap in Ontario. 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.
Paul Meisner, whose company Practical Energy has installed numerous geothermal installations in and around Oakville, cautioned against an overreaction to an incident he called truly unique.
“We’ve done probably 300-500 boreholes in the last couple of years and this is the first time anybody I’ve talked to has ever heard of this.”
“I think it’s just one of those ‘fluke’ scenarios. Typically, they go at least a kilometre deep to get natural gas. So if you hit it at 500 feet, that’s a fluke-and-a-half right there.”
Meisner said considerable training already exists for those who drill boreholes for these types of installations noting most begin as drillers for water wells or geotechnical applications and move into the area of geothermal.
Geothermal installation advocate and Oakville resident Blake Poland also called for restraint in reacting to this incident stating too much regulation could drive people away from geothermal.
“I am totally sympathetic with ensuring public safety is made a priority, but I am also concerned there may be so many new layers of bureaucracy that it would substantially increase the cost of these installations at a time when those costs have otherwise come down to a point where they are finally accessible to more people,” said Poland.
“It’s one thing if they are talking about training and certifying the drilling companies so they know what they are doing, but if they are talking about multiple layers of inspections and approvals that need to happen I could see that inflating the cost.”
Grant said residents are encouraged to hold off getting a geothermal installation that requires a deep borehole until regulations are in place.
The Town will be developing information for residents and contractors who are considering installing a geothermal energy system in Oakville.
Given there are known gas deposits in this area, the Town is encouraging contractors to consult with professional geoscientists or professional engineers, have an emergency contingency plan and follow safety requirements for natural gas drilling.
“I don’t think most people know anything about this topic,” said Grant. “We want the public to not be afraid of geothermal, but to just understand there are some ramifications with the installation of a geothermal system.”
Oakville MPP Kevin Flynn spoke on creating regulations for geothermal drilling.
“I’m glad nobody got hurt in this incident. I hope we can learn a lot from it and I’m hoping what has happened in Oakville and my inquiries to the Ministry of Energy, on behalf of the Town, will result in some regulations or some attention being paid to this issue,” said Flynn.
“I also hope we can come to some sort of resolution on where best expertise on this should reside. Whether it is a permitting process from the Town or a provincial process, I guess that is something that is up for discussion. I would support whichever level is the best place that should reside after we’ve considered all the options.”
The Town is continuing to work with officials from the Halton Region and the ministries of the environment and natural resources to monitor the leak that took place in the Maple Grove Drive/Lakeshore Road area and to ensure a permanent solution is put in place to prevent further gas leaking at this location.
Monitoring has been ongoing and recent findings have shown no significant traces of gas remain.


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