Sour-gas plan causes concern among Calgarians

Apr 12, 2004 02:00 AM

Nancy Oloman says she lives in the "death zone." It's a surprising description of her acreage, on prairie just east of Calgary with a view of the Rocky Mountains to the west. But less than 4 km away, a sour-gas well has been in production since 1984.
Now, Calgary-based Compton Petroleum has proposed to drill up to six sour gas wells around it, promising initial production of 280,000 cm from each well each day. Its plan would place the new wells one km from Calgary's southeast city limits, not far from 250,000 people and their homes, workplaces, schools and a proposed hospital site.

The Alberta Energy and Utilities Board, an independent arm of the government that regulates energy in the province, has never seen a proposal that affects so many or, its critics say, potentially puts so many lives at risk.
"I have thought about moving numerous times. I was planning to live here forever," said Ms Oloman, a 50-year-old mother of three who works as a school-bus driver and special-needs assistant. "But at this point it is uncertain to me. If this project goes ahead, we'll have to reconsider."

Like the other few hundred residents in her area, Ms Oloman has seen the existing gas well flare and has caught a whiff of it. A rotten-egg stench oozes from sour gas wells, which dot Alberta's rural landscape. It is the smell of hydrogen sulphide, a substance that is toxic to animals and people, even at low concentrations. But it is also the smell of a multibillion-dollar industry.
As Alberta's big cities and rural towns grow in a booming economy -- the Calgary-Edmonton corridor grew 12.3 % between the 1996 and 2001 censuses, to 2.1 mm people -- more people find themselves living near sour gas wells or proposed drilling sites. They become locked in a land-use conflict that can torpedo property values, trigger unknown health effects from low-level, long-term exposure, and cause skin, eye and respiratory problems -- even death -- from significant short-term contact.
"It's something urban residents are not well aware of," Ms Oloman said.

Hearings before the EUB were set to begin March 30, but have been postponed at Compton's request with no new date set. Some involved say the hearings may drag into autumn. Derek Longfield, Compton's vice-president of engineering and manager of the project, said his company is not commenting on the application. But environmentalists, residents groups, city officials and others are warming up for a fight.
A recent town-hall meeting called by a Calgary alderwoman was packed with angry residents and featured Calgary's fire chief as well as the city's chief medical officer of health publicly doubting the merits of Compton's plan. One woman cried as she rhymed off recent sour-gas-well blowouts, leaks, injuries and deaths. She cited one accident in China in December which killed 243 people and injured 10,000 when a well ruptured, spewing toxic substances, including hydrogen sulphide, into the air.
"I don't know how you can say it just doesn't happen here,"she wailed.

Gavin Fitch, who represents about 55 families called the Front Line Residents Group who are fighting the application, says some of his clients don't have faith in Compton's ability to respond to an emergency. They complain of not being kept informed about issues surrounding the existing well.
"Let's now imagine the worst-case scenario, and that makes their blood run cold," Mr Fitch said.

Sour gas makes up about one-third of all Alberta's natural-gas production and about 80 % of Canada's production. In Alberta, sour gas production reached about 1.6 tcf and revenue reached $ 6.3 bn last year, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
Compton has estimated reserves of at least 90 bn cf of sour gas lie under the lands where it is proposing to add wells. But at current projections, the existing well could continue to produce for another 50 to 60 years. Tapping these reserves at a faster rate could be a boon to this mid-sized oil and gas producer. An argument also circulating in favour of the application is to get the sour gas out as quickly as possible to minimize the risk instead of letting it linger for the next six decades.

The EUB describes Compton's proposed well sites as "critical" because the rate of release of hydrogen sulphide during drilling would be greater than 2 cm per second. The rotten-egg odour is detectable in concentrations as low as 0.5 parts of hydrogen sulphide per billion parts of air. Concentrations of more than 500 ppm parts of air leave victims gasping and could cause death within seconds.
Despite the risk and the existence of thousands of such wells in the province, just a handful of workers have been injured or killed from leaks or blowouts. (The pipeline for Compton's existing well leaked twice in 1998.) The industry cites high safety standards for the low incident rate. Most wells are in remote locations.

To be successful, Compton must show how the public and the environment would be protected in the event of a well blow-out or leak. Compton has to submit an emergency response plan to outline evacuation, shelter and ignition (igniting a well makes it easier to control, but it also sends a plume downwind dispersing less toxic chemicals over a greater area) in what is called an emergency planning zone or EPZ.
The circular EPZ around the well is based on the maximum potential for hydrogen sulphide release. In Compton's case, the EPZ during drilling and the more dangerous drilling completion phase has a radius of 15 km, but drops to 2.2 km during the more benign production phase.

Since more than 250,000 people are captured by the 15 km EPZ, Compton has asked the EUB to shrink the radius to four km during both drilling and completion, arguing that it would be "difficult or impractical" to evacuate so many homes and businesses in the event of a leak or blow-out.
Ian Dowsett, a former EUB employee who now conducts risk assessments with RWDI West, told the town hall meeting that computerized plume-dispersion models do not supportreducing the zone. Still, Mr Dowsett, who has also been hired by concerned residents, called sour gas well blowouts a "very unusual and rare event," but something Canada can manage.
"I simply do not expect we would see an incident like China," Mr Dowsett said.

The EUB, which rejects few applications, has been accused of cozying up to industry and being too quick to approve projects.
"If I'm talking to industry, we're too green," said Laurie Wilson-Temple, a senior applications officer with the EUB. "If I'm talking to the public, we're on the side of industry."

Source: The Globe and Mail
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