Alberta’s energy regulator says it’s making headway on the biggest overhaul of natural gas industry operations since new rules were enforced nearly 20 years ago after the Lodgepole disaster – the province’s worst sour-gas well blowout.
But some environmental groups are worried that in the rush to address long-standing health and environmental concerns about sour gas, the Energy and Utilities Board (EUB) is ignoring broader public issues about future energy development in Alberta.
The EUB released its first progress report since receiving recommendations in December from the provincial Advisory Committee on Public Safety and Sour Gas. The regulatory agency formed the committee, led by former EUB chairman Gerry DeSorcy, in the face of mounting public complaints about – and community opposition to – sour-gas exploration and development.
The initial 50 of 87 wide-ranging recommendations – encompassing health effects, sour-gas research, field enforcement and public consultation – are being implemented, with some already in place, the EUB says.
|Larry MacDougal, Business Edge|
|Sour-gas exploration and development is moving at a record pace along Alberta's foothills.|
“There’s no question in the organization that the staff understand that this is a priority,” said Kim Eastlick, a technical adviser in the EUB’s applications branch.
The agency has added a second inspection unit, including more than 10 additional field staff, to more closely scrutinize sour-gas wells, pipelines and sour-gas processing plants, said EUB spokesman Greg Gilbertson.
The Alberta government has provided an extra $2.6 million for the first year of a three-year program to implement all 87 of the committee’s recommendations, he said.
The design of Western Canada’s first study of oil and gas flaring and its possible health effects on people and livestock is also scheduled to be completed by the end of this year, the EUB says. The three-year, $20.5-million study, involving Alberta, B.C., Saskatchewan and Manitoba, will look at the possible links between the burning of sour gas to the atmosphere and health effects reported throughout Alberta.
“We heard people from Pincher Creek to Grande Prairie voicing incidences and what they felt were the effects,” said Judith Bugg, a cattle rancher from the Edson area, about 200 kilometres west of Edmonton, who represented the public on the advisory committee.
“I would like to see the research done to make some definitive (findings) about what exactly is going on.”
Sour-gas exploration and development is occurring at a record pace along Alberta’s foothills and in neighbouring B.C. By 2015, the number of wells in Western Canada containing sour gas – or varying amounts of toxic hydrogen sulphide – will rise to 40 per cent from the current 30 per cent, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) says.
David Pryce, manager of environment and operations at CAPP, says the industry group supports the regulatory changes. “We wanted to see some clarity. There was lots of confusion and some concerns.”
The new rules, for example, now clearly spell out when companies are allowed to reduce the size of emergency response planning zones for new sour-gas wells and pipelines, and what level of public consultation is required.
“The public needs to understand that we’ve got a responsible industry, we’ve got a responsible regulatory agency,” Pryce said. “Where changes are needed, we’d be supportive of that.”
Bugg says companies could start by doing better long-range planning, like she has to do for her cow-calf operation. “These oil companies think that they should decide on Friday that they want to drill a well and be able to spud it on Monday,” she said.
“More inspections of sour-gas operations are certainly important,” says Rocky Mountain House environmentalist Martha Kostuch, a member of the Prairie Acid Rain Coalition. “I think, though, that we’ve seen less value placed on public concern in general.”
The EUB, in agreeing to government requests to fast-track public hearings on the EPCOR and TransAlta proposed new coal-fired power plants west of Edmonton, refused to even consider the economic need for the facilities or the “green” energy alternatives, Kostuch said.
The EUB has also dismantled its environmental branch and integrated the staff into other divisions, she said. “That’s fine in theory, but in practice what happens is that the people who used to be dedicated to looking after the environment are now spread pretty thin.”
Chris Severson-Baker, environmental policy analyst at the Drayton Valley-based Pembina Institute, says the EUB’s initiatives on sour-gas concerns are welcome. But that effort is coming at the expense of EUB senior staff involvement in other issues, such as designing a long-range plan to manage more than $50 billion of future oilsands development, he said.
Sour-gas issues “blew up in the faces of the EUB because they weren’t proactively addressing them,” Severson-Baker noted. “They run the same risk with the coal-fired power plants and, over a longer time frame, with the oilsands.”
But the EUB’s Gilbertson said that because of the oil and gas industry’s cyclical nature, the regulatory agency has always had to balance its resources and staff levels among various issues.
The EUB now has more than 700 people on staff and its budget – about $90 million a year – has been increasing, not declining, Gilbertson said. “While it would always be nice to have more people, we do think we have adequate staff for the job that we have before us.”