Province looks to industry after a funding shortfall

An Alberta-led $19.3-million western Canada study into the health effects of oilfield gas flaring on people and livestock has run short of money – and the human health portion has been shelved.

Alberta will be taking a huge step backward in trying to resolve the flaring issue if money isn’t found to complete the three years of research, including the human health work, says Tee Guidotti, co-chair of the study’s science advisory panel.

“The issue will resurface, there’s no question about it,” said Guidotti, a former University of Alberta scientist and now a professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “The whole history of this type of study in Alberta has been one of dodging the problem and having it come back to bite them.”

The study is being managed, independent of government and industry, by the not-for-profit Western Interprovincial Scientific Studies Association.

It expects to make an announcement as early as this week on the study’s funding shortfall.

When the Alberta government announced the study more than a year ago, it said the research would finally provide some answers to a controversy that has raged in the province for 40 years.

Many rural landowners – including convicted northern Alberta oilfield saboteur Wiebo Ludwig – blame flaring for causing health problems in people and livestock. The complaints range from flu-like symptoms to spontaneous abortions and cancer.

Studies have shown that flaring – the burning of unwanted or uneconomical natural gas – releases low concentrations of hundreds of chemical compounds, many of them toxic and some cancer-causing.

The oil and gas industry has always insisted there is no scientific research that proves flaring harms people or livestock.

The Western Canada Study on Animal and Human Health Effects Associated with Exposure to Emissions from Oil and Natural Gas Field Facilities was supposed to provide some answers.

Guidotti said the work done so far has been “world class.”

It compares the productivity and disease resistance of beef cattle herds in areas where flaring occurs to the health of herds where there are no oilfield emissions.

The research, although preliminary, looks likely to answer the question of whether flaring is causing a widespread health problem affecting beef cattle in Alberta and other western provinces, Guidotti said.

But researchers still require about $8.3 million over two years to analyse the information they’re collecting and gather air-monitoring data for the study areas.

Alberta Environment says it has already contributed $11 million toward the animal-health research.

The department has asked the petroleum industry and the other provinces to put some money on the table. “We’ve put a lot of resources into it already,” said Alberta Environment spokesman Mark Cooper. “It would be a horrible shame if we’re not able to complete it.”

The department has asked the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), the regulatory Alberta Energy and Utilities Board, and British Columbia and Saskatchewan to come up with funding. B.C. had earlier contributed $20,000, but the other stakeholders have yet to put any money in.

Alberta oil and gas companies have voluntarily reduced flaring from oilfield batteries – small facilities that separate liquids from oil and gas – by 38 per cent since 1996. But that still leaves well over one billion cubic metres of gas flared and vented (released unburned) across the province each year.

David Pryce, manager of environment and operations for CAPP, says it intends to make up part of the study’s $8.3-million shortfall.

“It’s a multi-province-sponsored project, so we’d be looking to (governments) to review what further funding they’re prepared to put into this,” he said.

If government is contemplating new policy or regulations on flaring because of concerns about impacts on human health, “then that component of the study should be going forward as well,” Pryce said.

But Alberta Health and Wellness, which had originally budgeted $2 million over two years for the human-health component, says now it’s not necessary.

Spokesman David Dear says the department already spends a considerable amount every year studying the effects of oilfield emissions on the public.

Alberta Health contributed one-third of a recent $2-million study on oilsands emissions in the Fort McMurray area, Dear said. Suncor and Syncrude paid the rest.

The department also is contributing $180,000 toward an ongoing study with industry of refinery and other industrial emissions in Fort Saskatchewan east of Edmonton.

Alberta Health’s experts “are quite confident that the information we’re getting from (those studies) is excellent,” he said.

The research has shown no health risk to the public from oilfield emissions, he noted.

Dear said that if the Western Canada study’s animal-health findings do show any cause for concern, then Alberta Health would reconsider doing a follow-up study on human health.

Even if the animal health portion is completed, some farmers, ranchers and environmentalists are sure to question its results.

Rocky Mountain House veterinarian and environmentalist Martha Kostuch, a longtime critic of flaring, said the study’s scientists rejected the advice from an expert committee on how to design the research.

As a result, the work on beef cattle won’t include any laboratory tests on the animals as they’re being exposed to flaring emissions, she said.

“If they don’t find effects, (all it means is) they don’t know whether there would have been effects if you had been doing acute monitoring,” Kostuch said.

But science adviser Guidotti insists the advisory committee’s input was considered, although not all of it was incorporated in the study.

And while he’s confident the research will help answer questions about flaring’s impact on beef cattle, he stressed that without doing the human-health component, “the issue of human health effects is still wide open.”