The Calgary arm of a U.S.-based producer has found a key to keep access to the hazardous 30% of western Canadian natural gas – bend over backwards to make peace with increasingly fearful communities. Burlington Resources Canada Energy Ltd., a wholly-owned subsidiary of its Houston namesake, set a new standard for securing co-operation with development of “sour” gas, laced with hazardous hydrogen-sulphide.

In a case west of the Alberta capital of Edmonton, near the Rocky Mountain foothills town of Hinton, Burlington cleared the biggest hurdle facing a sour-gas drilling, compression and pipeline project called Gregg Lake. That was preparation of an emergency response plan for dealing with accidents that was acceptable to the community. It was a pioneering exercise in curing the worst sore spot faced by Canadian explorers, who increasingly have to deal with sour deposits as drilling goes into realms where they are common – deeper and along the foothills regions of western Alberta and northeastern British Columbia.

Public health authorities rate hydrogen-sulphide as a threat starting at atmospheric concentrations of 150 parts per million and as lethal in minutes at 750 ppm or more. The impurity’s characteristic rotten-egg smell is detected at as little as 0.01 ppm by sensitive people and becomes a moderate to strong stink for all at 1-10 ppm. The hydrogen-sulphide content of sour-gas drilling targets routinely runs to 30-50%, and occasionally into the 80% range.

The Burlington case, decided by the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board, indicated the industry learned lessons from a high-profile setback that Shell Canada Ltd. suffered near Rocky Mountain House in March. After a two-year wrangle over emergency response planning that became the subject of a documentary by national television environmental evangelist David Suzuki, Shell was denied permission to drill a sour-gas well about eight kilometres from the town.

As at Rocky Mountain House, the Hinton project involved a popular, growing and scenic country residential, recreational and retirement district. Unlike at Rocky Mountain House, where Shell has had sour-gas operations for decades and admitted it made a mistake by taking acceptance for granted, at Hinton Burlington assumed from the start that it faced opposition.

After elaborate public consultations, Burlington adapted its plans to include: a pipeline route as far as possible from the country residential district, extra emergency shutdown valves in the vicinity of the housing and a nearby provincial park, special monitoring equipment for wind speed and direction, a sensor and siren system akin to an air-raid warning tower, a new radio and communications system, 24-hour staffing of the facilities until they prove their reliability in the commissioning phase, warning signs, a commitment to have helicopters available to go to the rescue of hikers during hazardous phases of the operation, and a pledge to plow the roads during winter as a side benefit of maintenance work.

Burlington also cured a sore spot that showed up in the industry’s community relations in the Rocky Mountain House case heightened public anxiety caused by disputes among experts over engineering risk assessments. The company used evolving methods to consider worst-case scenarios that the AEUB praised as “highly realistic,” then went another extra mile by recruiting a peer review panel of specialists in the field for additional study, including further comment from community representatives. The effect was to widen the emergency planning zone to a point described by the AEUB as “an EPZ size that errs in favour of safety.”

The AEUB praised the peer review process as a peacemaking step that stood out as a good idea while it awaits results of a project under way to devise standardized risk assessments accepted as reliable by the expert community.

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