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Sour Gas Drilling Near Calgary Approved

Sour Gas Drilling Near Calgary Approved

At the cost of a long fight and new orders to work overtime on improving their community relations, Canadian producers have won a victory preserving access to a major drilling target: "sour" natural gas, laced with lethal hydrogen-sulphide.

The victory came in a landmark ruling by the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board. The safety, environment and conservation watchdog agency startled confident protesters by approving a major sour-gas exploration well seven miles upwind of the northwest city limit of Calgary and in the heart of an affluent, vigorously resisting country residential district.

At the same time, the AEUB imposed 18 conditions on the well authorization that prompted environmental specialists who participated in the case to call the decision a "tough new template" for sour-gas drilling with lessons for others infringing on public and private property.

The AEUB's ruling served notice that "appropriate notification and public consultation must be conducted well in advance of the submission of an application to the board. It must be thorough enough to allow all parties who are or may be affected to be sufficiently aware of the proposed project, but the board process as well.....the public must have sufficient information to participate meaningfully in the decision-making process, to voice their concerns, have their concerns heard and properly addressed and, if possible, resolved."

The Lochend fight goes down in AEUB records as a case where the driller, Canadian 88, "did not meet this level of public notification and consultation"-and suffered as a result. "The consequence was misapprehension of the risks, inflamed relationships and an unnecessary anxiety." The company "needs to expend considerable effort to rebuild the trust with the community or turn over the operation to others who have that trust."

Known as Lochend after a scenic road through the district, the well became a symbol of a fight that has been escalating for years between expanding communities and a growing industry. About one-third of Alberta's gas production is "sour," with 227 processing plants extracting about 98% of the hazardous byproduct as sulphur and incinerating the rest through towering stacks as sulphur-dioxide. Hydrogen-sulphide, a deadly poison that can kill in atmospheric concentrations of less than 1%, also is encountered with increasing frequency in the deeper, more prolific geology where much current exploration is concentrated along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. The substance is showing up in about 35% of discoveries on the hot drilling frontiers of northeastern British Columbia, and shows signs of becoming a feature of exploration spreading into the southern Northwest Territories.

Next door to the Canadian gas capital of Calgary, the Lochend well underlined the industry's predicament. The sponsors-Canadian 88 Energy Corp., Canadian Occidental Petroleum Co. and Prize Energy Inc.-told the AEUB they are after a rich prize. The geologists believe they may have tracked down an entirely new formation containing up to 1 Tcf of reserves. But technical analogies with other areas also suggest the deposit will be 34% hydrogen sulphide, which is at the high end of the industry scale but not rare in the foothills country where Calgary fills a valley routinely blasted by west winds out of the mountains.

The Lochend well is so large, deep and potent that it automatically rates an official designation as "critical," a status which since the early 1980s has required special gear plus advance planning for emergencies including detailed evacuation programs for surrounding areas. Regional health authorities warned that a leak or blowout could force residents out of their homes in tens of thousands. Sour gas is so potent that even tiny concentrations measured in hundredths of a % can arouse great offense and indignation over its characteristic odor of rotten eggs across wide areas. The substance is popularly blamed for a range of ailments ranging from respiratory problems to stillbirths among cattle and humans.

After deliberating for more than a year, the AEUB finally decided sour-gas drilling is still acceptable, even close to a major population center. By Alberta standards, the decision said, "the public safety risks associated with the proposed well are representative of normal industrial risks accepted by society.....these risks are similar to existing facilities and are acceptable if managed through strict adherence to the risk control measures required in the existing regulations."

Gordon Jaremko, Calgary

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