Alberta regulator investigates health complaints around Peace River oilsands projects

Alberta regulator investigates health complaints around Peace River oilsands projects
Shell’s pump jacks draw oil from 600 metres underground as part of its steam-assisted in situ oil recovery project near Peace River. An expansion project for the site was recently approved.Photo: Shell Canada.

After years of complaints from residents in the Peace River area of northwestern Alberta, the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) has begun looking into the odours and emissions coming from local in situ oilsands development that people claim is making them sick.

The regulator announced in mid-September that it would launch an investigation into the odours and emissions produced by heavy oil operations in the region, and provide a forum for the public to have their concerns formally heard.

That process began last week with an organizational meeting on Oct. 7 in Peace River where residents, industry reps, government agencies and subject matter experts came together to plan the conduct of the proceedings. A decision about the scope and format of the investigation will be announced Nov. 4, with oral hearings taking place on Dec. 9.

Written submissions were also made to the AER, many of which came from landowners who vacated the area due to claims that nearby industry was having negative effects on their health and livestock.

According to the regulator, the proceedings will consider concerns of Peace River area residents, along with expert technical information on how odours and emissions may affect human and animal health, the sources of heavy oil odours and emissions, and will examine the existing regulations to see if improvements are required.

“The AER has made considerable progress in identifying the nature and source of hydrocarbon emissions emanating from (heavy oil) operations. However, even though the AER’s flaring, venting and incinerating requirements are among the most stringent in the world, public concerns regarding hydrocarbon emissions and related odours persist,” AER president and CEO James Ellis told chief hearing commissioner Brad McManus in a letter in July.

Oilsands development around Peace River is primarily done in situ, either through cold heavy oil production with sand (CHOPS), which pumps bitumen along with water and sand to the surface from 600m deep deposits to be refined elsewhere, or by pumping high pressurized steam underground to decrease the viscosity of the puck-like bitumen and have it pumped as liquid to the surface.

AER spokesperson Bob Curran said significant work to mitigate odours and emissions has already been done with landowners, industry and government agencies in the Peace River area.

“The AER’s work with industry has resulted in 94 per cent of gas produced at CHOP facilities being captured in the Peace River area. Additionally, the AER has worked with landowners and industry to implement a response protocol. The protocol has triggered more than 700 AER inspections and 2,100 AER investigations since 2010,” he said in an email.

Though Ellis’ letter seemed to focus specifically on CHOPS, Curran said the scope of the proceeding is yet to be determined.

Residents complain of sickness

Years of complaints of nausea, headaches, skin rashes, memory loss, joint pain, exhaustion and difficulty breathing have been enough to force seven families in the area to move. Some have complained about sick livestock and more about devalued property as oilsands development increasingly encroaches upon their farmland.

“I have horses in the area that have been displaying respiratory distress for prolonged periods of time. The horses have been showing the following symptoms: dry cough, conjunctivitis, breathing difficulties, runny noses, and noticeable hives on some,” reads a letter by Beverly Osborne, submitted to the AER on Oct. 4.

Thera Breau, who vacated the area, wrote that she saw adverse health effects in her children, which she believes were linked to bitumen production, including nose bleeds, skin rashes, insomnia, language difficulties and eye twitching.

Former residents Michel and Leona Labrecque wrote that they also left their homes because of “serious health concerns” they claimed were industry-related, and called for better regulations and enforcement, along with cumulative impacts monitoring.

Wilson Law, in their submission on behalf of the Labrecque family, stated that so many residents leaving their homes is “unprecedented in the history of relations between Alberta’s oil industry and landowners.”

With CHOPS, ultra heavy oil is stored in hundreds of heated storage tanks around the region. Shell Canada’s bitumen handbook notes fumes from storage tanks can “result in irritation to the eyes, nose and respiratory tract and headaches and nausea.”

Though in situ production, particularly when steam assisted, is often toted by industry as having less of an environmental footprint than unsightly open pit mines, studies indicate a greater amount of emissions are produced by in situ mining, some of which can be toxic.

“Oil companies routinely report 16 different toxic and smog-causing air emissions from their in situ oil sands,” according to Environment Canada. “These emissions would be higher if the emissions associated with upgrading the resulting bitumen into synthetic crude oil were included, as most upgrading takes place off-site.”

Steamed bitumen is often associated with the production of hydrogen sulfide, known to be a potent neurotoxin, due to a chemical reaction called “aquathermosis” where higher steam temperatures tend to generate greater volumes of the toxic gas.

Along with hydrogen sulfide, studies have shown polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) – known carcinogens – are also contained within emissions from both upgraders and storage tanks, along with benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, chloromethane and acetone, all shown to have negative effects on human health.

AER regulations currently take into account all intentional and unintentional emissions from oil and gas, which include fumes associated with gas stored in bitumen tanks, Curran said, and monitor for substances like hydrogen sulfide and sulphur dioxide.

Industry expanding

Like elsewhere in the province, oilsands development is rapidly expanding in the northwestern corner near Peace River, where deposits are too deep to allow for anything other than in situ operations.

Shell received regulatory approval in April of this year to begin expanding on its existing Peace River project into the Carmon Creek area. The expansion would see bitumen production increased from 12,500 barrels per day to 80,000 at peak production.

The Carmon Creek project plans to use vertical steam drive (VSD) coupled with cyclic steam stimulation (CSS) to recover bitumen, which means pumping pressurized steam into a vertical well at the centre of six production wells arranged hexagonally for weeks or months at a time.

“The steam from the CSS cycle will heat the bitumen to lower its viscosity, thereby allowing the bitumen to flow. When the CSS cycle is complete and the production wells have been steam soaked once, the central steam injection well will begin to steam continuously. This steam injection process will push steam horizontally toward the producing wells,” states Shell’s project application.

Each CSS cycle is projected to last one to two years. The project will include 810 new wells from 18 well pads. Each set of seven wells will cover 3.4 hectares and will tap a 600-metre deep reservoir. A typical set of wells is expected to remain in operation for about 10 years.

Other active operations in the area include Baytex Energy Corp.’s Cliffdale and Harmon Valley projects, along with Penn West Petroleum’s Seal Main. Southern Pacific Resources Corp. has a pilot project, and several others are expected to start up over the next two years. Husky also operates a smaller project of 35 oil wells in the area.

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