In May of 2012, Ontario instituted new regulations http://www.e-laws.gov.on.ca/html/regs/english/elaws_regs_120098_e.htm which will dramatically slow down the ability for smaller scale geothermal to be installed in urban areas due to cost and timing issues. The regulations were introduced suddenly and without known consultation within the industry in reaction to some methane escaping form a geothermal well being drilled in Oakville.
Methane is present in varying quantities underground, as a result of decaying organic matter, and so when we dig or drill into the ground, some comes out. Generally, since methane is lighter than air, it floats up and away when released from the ground – which can be ecologically problematic, since methane is a powerful greenhouse gas. However – this was not the reason for the new regulation. The regulation was put in place due to safety concerns which have been unequally applied to a specific process.
Methane is flammable, and may cause explosions if in a confined space, however, the open air nature of the activity of drilling means there’s a very low risk of explosion (if any at all). Since methane may escape when ground is disturbed, there’s a risk of escape with deep foundations excavation and drilling and water wells, however those activities have far less stringent requirements.
The new regulations for geothermal involve making a plan, and applying to the Ministry of Environment for an Environmental Compliance Permit. The plan must be prepared by a professional engineer or geoscientist, must contain plans to manage or capture gas. The regulation seems to have some merit and was designed with safety in mind, but is unevenly applied across activities and sectors within the Province.
The most troubling element of the regulation is the need to apply to the Ministry for approval, and for the project to be posted on the Environmental Bill of Rights. Estimates of 3-6 months plus to process applications have been made. Commonly, Ministry staff note they are understaffed to deal with issues of air pollution, toxic waste dumping and other ecologically harmful activities – so why the rush to have them slow down the process for people looking into installing renewable energy projects?