Project Search

sector_ico_Environment_trans Environment

Subsurface microbiome responses to fugitive natural gas

  • Project Leaders: Roger Beckie, Sean Crowe
  • Institutions: University of British Columbia (UBC)
  • Budget: $200000
  • Program/Competition: Sector Innovation Program
  • Genome Centre(s): Genome British Columbia
  • Fiscal Year: 2018
  • Status: Closed

Unconventional natural gas resource development risks releasing fugitive gas into groundwater and/or the atmosphere due to wellbore integrity failure. These leaks may affect groundwater quality or emit greenhouse gases.  This project aimed to increase the broad-scale application of genomics in the energy, mining and environmental sectors and to provide genomics tools, techniques and data to address fugitive gas leakage – a key challenge for the BC energy sector. 


The project intentionally released natural gas into a shallow groundwater system in Northern British Columbia. The chosen system was representative of much of the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin (WCSB) where extensive unconventional natural gas resource development occurs. For more than two years, the team tracked the location and migration of fugitive gas through 55 groundwater monitoring points. The team developed non-filtration-based sampling techniques and contamination control methods and used DNA sequencing to identify subsurface microbial communities in the WCSB.   


They discovered that these microbial communities have the metabolic potential for methane oxidation, but direct measurements showed very low metabolic activity, indicating that most of the subsurface fugitive gas tracked during the study remained unattenuated and emissions to the atmosphere were limited. While the limited activity of methane-oxidizing microbes restricted the natural attenuation of the fugitive gas, it also means that the gas release had little impact on groundwater properties and quality.  


The study generated microbial fingerprints of groundwater and subsurface soils. This information will populate a database for baseline subsurface communities and provide the foundational information needed for future assessments. Future assessments of fugitive gas and related policies should consider the relatively low potential for microbial methane consumption in situ. The findings suggest that deliberate interventions designed to mitigate subsurface fugitive methane plumes can focus on stimulating the in-situ microbial communities.