Research Visit: Olivia Milton-Thompson

WISE CDT student Olivia Milton-Thompson (Cohort 2) recently spent 3 months researching at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Vancouver working in collaboration with experts in industry and academia on conventional and unconventional energy development and their risks to groundwater and fugitive gas migration.

A spontaneous trip to EGU in Vienna in April 2018, plus a friendly poster discussion over wine, produced a 3-month research visit for Olivia in Vancouver at the end of 2018. Olivia spent 3 months at UBC working within the Energy and Environment Research Initiative (EERI) under the supervision of Dr Aaron Cahill and in part collaboration with the BC Oil and Gas Commission (BC OGC). The placement allowed Olivia to work with field data from BC unconventional wells to help in her model development and validation and to further her understanding of hydraulic fracturing in a country where it is prevalent to its economy.

During Olivia’s visit, as well as enjoying the sites of Canada and a fantastic campus with views of the sea and mountains only minutes from her office, Olivia was able to gain a deep understanding of the process of drilling unconventional wells in Canada, the pathways to which gas and fluids could escape, in addition to those which are highly unlikely to reach groundwater (a message often confused in the media).

Unlike the UK, Canada have relatively accessible data on their wells, whether producing, decommissioned, abandoned or being drilled. For the BC OGC to understand in more depth the potential for leaking wells they make public to researchers a host of data and Olivia worked with an MSc student at UBC who is developing statistical models on patterns in wells which are leaking and those which are not. The data has also allowed Olivia to develop her model further and hopefully validate it with British Columbia as a case study. In addition, Olivia was interested in understanding more about the potential for different cementing practises in unconventional wells which might cause or enhance gas migration pathways. She met with experts in the Mechanical Engineering department at UBC who focus on these exact issues and obtained data which has been implemented into her model using fuzzy logic methods.

Despite Vancouver being well known for its extremely rainy weather between September and December (yes, even more so than the UK), the last few months of 2018 proved to completely ignore this trait and Olivia had great sunshine for most of the trip! The commute was either a good hour on the bus (very over-crowded and sick-making…) or a relatively pleasant, if not slightly dangerous, 15km bike ride each way. The bike ride always won over the bus and in addition, bike trips were made at the weekends around the city, with one weekend cycling around the stunning Stanley Park. Despite the high number of hours spent at the University, there were plenty of opportunities to hike, bike and visit the North Vancouver mountains and Olivia also found some good tennis players to keep up her hitting every week! A fantastic trip thoroughly enjoyed; far too many pictures were taken but a few of the top ones are shown below.

Olivia said “I want to thank UBC and especially the EERI group and Aaron for having me and giving up their time to connect me with useful industrial and academic contacts. I also want to thank my two amazing housemates who found me struggling to find accommodation on a UBC housing group and took me under their wing for 3 months; I felt so very welcome and their PhD’s in sociology with mine in fracking certainly kept the conversations alive at dinner! Big thumbs up, Canada!”