Canadian producers are keeping access to their most hazardous natural gas source, but the path to the drilling target is becoming a tight squeeze past popular resistance and regulatory supervision.
The price of victory in a two-year contest over tapping "sour" gas, laced with lethal hydrogen sulphide (H2S), near the industry's Calgary capital turned out to be an approval studded with 15 formal conditions and 200 promises.
Alberta's Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) will strictly enforce the conditions. The promises, extracted by project opponents during lengthy consultations and hearings, are recorded in the ERCB summer decision and the public has rights to appeal for a review of the approval if any are broken or neglected.
Known as the Sullivan project, after a nearby creek, the development includes 11 wells and 55 kilometers (34 miles) of pipelines in scenic foothills of the Rocky Mountains about an hour's drive southwest of Calgary. The scheme traverses a touchy district of ranches, affluent country residential sites and an aboriginal reserve within sight of Kananaskis Country, an expansive provincial park in the front range of the Rockies where some events of the 1988 Winter Olympics were held. The name of the Stoney (Nakoda Sioux) homeland conveys the intensity of local and environmental affection for the region -- Eden Valley.
The promises by Suncor Energy, which inherited the project in its 2009 takeover of Petro-Canada, include a startling pledge to shut-in production operations if a single odor complaint is received. In the formal approval conditions, the ERCB settled for a milder guarantee that every single grievance will be investigated.
The development target is an estimated 250 Bcf of gas, which is about 15% sour with an H2S content of 150,000 parts per million (ppm). Sensitive noses detect the substance's trademark rotten eggs smell at concentrations below 1 ppm. In the highly variable climate of the foothills, where temperatures often fall or rise rapidly in alternating frigid and warm winds, equipment such as valve and instrument seals is notoriously prone to contractions or swelling that can allow brief, fugitive leaks of H2S traces.
About one-third of Alberta gas reserves and production are officially defined as sour and hazardous for exceeding exposure limits set by occupational safety and health authorities. A high proportion of the province's oil is also prone to the contamination. Bitumen in the northern oilsands belt averages 5% sulphur, which is harmless in its mineral form but goes through gaseous H2S and sulphur-dioxide (SO2) stages during commercial production and purification processes.
The offensive material is so pervasive that everyone working in gas or oil fields in Alberta must pass an industry- and government-standard basic safety course called H2S Alive. The training has also lately become a must for closeup or extended visits to drilling and production sites.
As a nerve gas akin to cyanide, H2S is far more potent and fast-acting than smothering gases such as carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide, which in high volumes replace oxygen and impede breathing. H2S starts causing headaches and nausea in the 20-200 ppm concentration range. Exposure to 700 ppm or more causes instant loss of consciousness and permanent brain damage or death if the victim is not rescued and revived within four to six minutes.
All sour gas projects have emergency response and evacuation plans and tests as a matter of routine. In the Sullivan case, stiffened requirements include installing a communications network of cell phone towers or alarm sirens for the Eden Valley Stoney Reserve before production begins.
The Sullivan ruling also highlights a continuing Alberta trend of diminishing public acceptance of sour gas operations -- or, in some cases, any industry activity -- that interferes with wildlife.
In exchange for the drilling and pipeline approval, Suncor has pledged to become a friend to bears and wolves and especially the grizzly, an icon of the foothills and mountains. Company commitments include supporting two initiatives dedicated to enhancing wildlife habitat and reducing mortality: the Alberta Grizzly Bear Recovery Team and the Foothills Research Institute.
The ERCB's Sullivan ruling is under review by all concerned, with the company studying whether the project is still economic under all the conditions while rancher, community and environmental opponents look for ways to mount further resistance.
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