Protesters who tried to halt sour-gas production in northern British Columbia (BC) by planting bombs at four industry sites have lost their war. Development of the hazardous natural gas reserves, laced with lethal hydrogen-sulphide, will continue and possibly expand under a ruling handed down March 26 by Canada's National Energy Board (NEB).
The NEB approved construction of a new sour gas pipeline called Redwillow from wells in the Dawson Creek region, where the violence erupted, to a processing plant near Wapiti in northern Alberta. The C$151 million (US$120 million) line will carry about 80 MMcf/d of raw gas -- with hydrogen-sulphide content of up to 30% -- across 150 kilometers (94 miles) of remote and often rugged terrain.
If hydrogen-sulphide leaks, public health and workplace safety agencies rate it as lethal in atmospheric concentrations of less than 1%. Unlike another impurity expected to form up to 15% of the cargo in the Redwillow line, carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulphide kills by attacking the nervous system rather than smothering. In dangerous doses the invisible toxic gas almost immediately destroys the sense of smell, eliminating accident victims' ability to detect the substance's trademark rotten-egg odor.
The NEB held hearings on the Redwillow project last Oct. 28-31 in Dawson Creek, the starting point of the Alaska Highway. Three of the bombings, done by unknown protesters who declared they were fighting sour gas in an unsigned note sent to a northern BC newspaper, were discovered at remote industry facilities around Tomslake in the Dawson Creek region last Oct. 12, 15 and 31 (see Daily GPI, Dec. 19, 2008). A fourth bomb exploded on Jan. 5, after a flurry of international media attention and an extensive investigation by an anti-terrorism squad of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) (see Daily GPI, Jan. 6). There were no injuries or big leaks of gas steeped in hydrogen sulphide, although all the target facilities handle the material.
EnCana Corp., supported by the RCMP plus local and provincial government leaders, posted a C$500,000 (US$400,000) reward for information leading to the capture and conviction of the bombers on Jan. 13 (see Daily GPI, Jan. 14). There have been no explosions since. Nor have any suspects been caught and charged.
Following initial investigations, police said the attacks were most likely the work of residents in the remote area rather than international terrorists. Finding and reaching the scenes of the bombings requires local knowledge and back-country skills, officials said.
Although northern BC and Alberta rely heavily on resource production for conventional livelihoods, they are studded with pockets of fiercely independent back-country lifestyles led by rugged individualists or zealous communal groups that are famous for being close-knit, secretive and wary of outsiders.
Although the project's location also required it to establish contact with 22 aboriginal First Nations communities, only two intervened in the case to register objections against the pipeline or demand special requirements.
The NEB approval includes about two dozen conditions covering issues from sour gas facilities safety engineering to emergency response planning and community safety drills. The package largely adopts standard practices enforced by Alberta's Energy Resources Conservation Board, which every year deals with numerous sour gas developments and conflicts.
Besides aggressive protesters, the NEB worked its wary through financial turmoil in order to approve the new sour gas pipeline. Sponsor SemCAMS Redwillow ULC belongs to a corporate family in the United States, SemGroup LP, that last summer obtained bankruptcy protection against creditors in U.S. and Canadian courts.
The board accepted assurances that the pipeline project can be financed separately on its own merits. The sponsor's assurances were supported by the court-appointed company monitor in the bankruptcy case, Ernst & Young Inc. Shippers have covered the costs by signing use-or-pay gas transportation contracts.
An initial anchor group of customers for the pipeline includes Husky Oil, Shell Canada, BG International and Suncor Energy. Numerous other Canadian producers are also active in the region. In addition to opening a delivery route out of northern BC for wells that remain shut-in following recent exploration successes, the project is forecast to encourage further drilling. A 2006 review by the BC Energy Ministry forecast that 5.8 Tcf of reserves can be tapped in the region that will be served by the new Redwillow pipeline.
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