Natural Gas Burns: Alberta’s “Sour Gas”

By Jennifer Huang | World Power II: Environment

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In Alberta, Canada, many oil and gas operations are located near towns and farms, sometimes less than a kilometer away. Residents blame a rash of severe public health and environmental problems — from crop damage and childhood illness to miscarriages, livestock deaths and human brain damage — on the flaring and venting of natural gas at drilling sites and refineries.

At the center of the controversy is hydrogen sulfide — or “sour gas” — a poisonous substance that has been compared to cyanide, and described by the 1924 U.S. Public Health Service as “one of the most toxic of gases.”

According to Dr. Kaye Kilburn, a neurotoxicologist at the University of Southern California and the author of the book “Chemical Brain Injury,” hydrogen sulfide causes permanent brain damage at very low levels and can kill at 500 parts per million.

Sour gas is widespread in Canada and throughout North America, he said, and “in Alberta, particularly, [oil companies] have exposed quite a few people who farm and ranch in the areas where they’re putting a lot of wells down … So they expose these people to unknown but devastating levels of hydrogen sulfide, so people end up brain-damaged as a consequence.”

Critics say that the regional government in Alberta is biased against landowners, and has routinely ignored their health concerns in favor of the interests of the oil companies there.

The story of the Graffs, a ranching family in Alberta, is typical. According to the October 1, 2002, edition of the Ontario-based National Post, through the late 1990s the family lost 25 percent of their calving herd of cattle, with pigs miscarrying in record numbers, due to flaring by the oil drilling company Crestar.

The Graffs themselves suffered spiraling health effects, including pneumonia, heart problems, leg paralysis, declining muscle control, weight loss and seizures.

The National Post article reported that for decades, thousands of Albertans living near sour gas facilities have “persistently reported health problems and reproductive abnormalities with their livestock,” and that in the last 30 years hydrogen sulfide has killed “at least 34 workers in Alberta and British Columbia and disabled hundreds more … [and] downed cattle and forced the evacuation of aboriginal reserves.”

In a phone interview from his office in Los Angeles, Kilburn said he examined “five or six” people from Alberta who lived close to oil wells and collection depots, including the Graffs, and said that they showed signs of hydrogen sulfide exposure.

“These people have impairment of brain function and lung function,” said Kilburn, and the Graff’s son Darrell “has pretty severe impairment. He can no longer, at the age of 23 or 24, farm.”

The National Post article describes the Alberta Energy & Utilities Board (EUB) as essentially funded and run by the oil industry, and the Graff’s record of failed lawsuits and public hearings seem to reflect this. A 1999 ruling from the EUB even allowed Crestar to expand operations and declined to help the family relocate to a region without any oil drilling activities.

The Graffs eventually moved on their own, after selling their farm for half its appraised value.

Bob Curran, a senior advisor at the EUB, said that while the agency receives 70 percent of its funding from a levy on the oil industry and 30 percent from the government, they have made proposals to the government to shift that ratio to 50-50.

He also said that the EUB does have a “‘high percentage of staff that has worked in the oil industry — it’s kind of ridiculous to not have people with experience in the industry working in the field.”

In Alberta, the Clean Air Strategic Alliance (CASA), an association of industry, government and watchdog organizations, mandated a 25 percent reduction in flaring by the end of 2001. CASA said petroleum producers actually exceeded that target, cutting back 38 percent.

But an article in the Calgary Herald on July 26, 2001, reported a spike in gas venting matching that reduction. Venting is the practice of simply releasing raw gases into the atmosphere, at a much higher environmental impact than flaring.

The EUB’s Curran said that venting is permitted if certain guidelines are met, but that his agency is working to reduce it across Alberta to “virtually zero.”

The regional government launched the Public Safety and Sour Gas Initiative in early 2000, a commission that ultimately produced a report that criticized the EUB for favoring industry and failing to monitor gas releases and public health.

The report also made dozens of recommendations for reducing impacts and improving public consultation, but concluded that the EUB and the industry are, and have been, “endeavoring to ensure that sour gas operations have minimal negative impacts on the public.”

Curran said there is zero tolerance for hydrogen sulfide emissions, and that if a drilling site was discovered to be releasing sour gas it would be shut down.

Curran acknowledged that many Albertans are dissatisfied with the EUB’s performance.

“Generally there’s a gap between what people feel has happened and what the companies assert has happened,” he said. He draws an analogy between the EUB and the police department: “We strictly enforce the regulations. If the regulations aren’t strict enough, it’s not in our ability to change that.”

While many residents are hopeful about new regulations to reduce flaring, there is plenty of skepticism as to whether this will make a difference.

“The Energy and Utilities Board is not doing a sufficient job of protecting the health and well-being of farmers in rural Alberta,” said Anita Sorgard, Darrell Graff’s sister. “In Alberta, the oil and gas companies pay … a major contribution to the wealth of the province. The industry is looked on as a cash cow. So, much of the government services are provided by the revenue generated by the industry … And so sometimes the emphasis isn’t quite in the right area.”

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