There is a good reason why Medicine Hat is affectionately known as "The Gas City." Just 58 kilometres from the first natural gas discovery in the province, this southern Alberta city is home to 63 000 people, and 314 gas wells.
In other areas of the province, Albertans keep a watchful eye on well activity that takes place near their homes and in their communities. In Medicine Hat, however, wells are simply part of the landscape.
"We have been in the business [of gas well operation] for over a hundred years," says the city's operations manager, Jim Troyer. "And I think people are just kind of used to it."
Medicine Hat residents live peacefully with these often discrete pieces of infrastructure because the wells pose little threat and many work in the industry. With some wells having an average pressure of just 20 psi, the wells are under less pressure than the average car tire and produce only sweet gas (it contains no hydrogen sulphide), which means they pose little risk to people, animals, or the environment.
In fact, these wells are seen more as friends than foes because most provide heat to the homes surrounding them.
That doesn't mean there aren't concerns, but the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) works with the City of Medicine Hat, as appropriate, to address any complaints.
"I think a big part of the reason that we get very few complaints is that the wells have always been here and they know they're safe," explains Heath Matthews, manager of the AER's Medicine Hat Field Centre.
Inner City Drilling
Central Park—Well #12 is located in the heart of Medicine Hat, and is only footsteps away from homes and a playground. Drilled in 1913, this 106-year-old well still produces enough gas to heat many homes throughout the winter. Due to the abundance of other wells that surround the city, this one is shut in during the summer when demand wanes.
Medicine Hat's American Hotel was demolished in 1949, but a historic well drilled in the 1890s that was located underneath it lives on as an abandoned well. A small amount of sweet natural gas that escapes from the immediate area around the well is vacuumed up and released into the atmosphere, where it quickly dissipates, thereby preventing gas buildup. This tiny amount of gas cannot support combustion. This well is now under the management of the Orphan Well Association.
If you're visiting the Veiner Centre—a city-operated senior services centre—and you look hard enough, you'll notice a well outside. The well showcases how the city blends gas activity with residential neighbourhoods: it's enclosed within a small building, which is surrounded by a tall, wooden fence. The city does this to ensure that the sights and sounds from well activity are not disturbing the residents nearby. As with the American Hotel well location, equipment is used to dissipate any gas that escapes from around the well.
Commercial well activity continues for many kilometres outside city limits. Among the long stretches of pipeline that transport natural gas, you can find facilities that separate the gas from water or oil before it moves to another facility where mercaptin is added. As natural gas is odourless, municipalities add mercaptin to give it an odour that makes leaks easier to detect.
All Hell for a Basement
Rudyard Kipling was a well-known journalist, Nobel Prize recipient, and author of The Jungle Book, who visited Medicine Hat in the early 1900s. Upon seeing the flare stacks that gave the city a red glow, Kipling wrote: "This part of the country seems to have all hell for a basement, and the only trap door appears to be in Medicine Hat."
Kipling's words remind us of a time of, what seemed to be, a natural gas supply that would never run dry. Today we know that these nonrenewable resources will eventually be exhausted. But for the foreseeable future, the people of Medicine Hat know that it will be a long time until the last well is all tapped out.
External News Coverage
City Announces Intent to Accelerate Abandonment and Reclamation of Uneconomic Gas Fields
City of Medicine Hat Newsroom| September 11, 2019
Leaving a comment? You should know this: