At the cost of a long fight and new orders to work overtime onimproving their community relations, Canadian producers have won avictory 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 andUtilities Board. The safety, environment and conservation watchdogagency startled confident protesters by approving a major sour-gasexploration well seven miles upwind of the northwest city limit ofCalgary and in the heart of an affluent, vigorously resistingcountry residential district.

At the same time, the AEUB imposed 18 conditions on the wellauthorization that prompted environmental specialists whoparticipated in the case to call the decision a “tough newtemplate” for sour-gas drilling with lessons for others infringingon public and private property.

The AEUB’s ruling served notice that “appropriate notificationand public consultation must be conducted well in advance of thesubmission of an application to the board. It must be thoroughenough to allow all parties who are or may be affected to besufficiently aware of the proposed project, but the board processas well…the public must have sufficient information toparticipate meaningfully in the decision-making process, to voicetheir concerns, have their concerns heard and properly addressedand, if possible, resolved.”

The Lochend fight goes down in AEUB records as a case where thedriller, Canadian 88, “did not meet this level of publicnotification and consultation” — and suffered as a result. “Theconsequence was misapprehension of the risks, inflamedrelationships and an unnecessary anxiety.” The company “needs toexpend considerable effort to rebuild the trust with the communityor turn over the operation to others who have that trust.”

Known as Lochend after a scenic road through the district, thewell became a symbol of a fight that has been escalating for yearsbetween expanding communities and a growing industry. Aboutone-third of Alberta’s gas production is “sour,” with 227processing plants extracting about 98% of the hazardous byproductas sulphur and incinerating the rest through towering stacks assulphur-dioxide. Hydrogen-sulphide, a deadly poison that can killin atmospheric concentrations of less than 1%, also is encounteredwith increasing frequency in the deeper, more prolific geologywhere much current exploration is concentrated along the easternslopes of the Rocky Mountains. The substance is showing up in about35% of discoveries on the hot drilling frontiers of northeasternBritish Columbia, and shows signs of becoming a feature ofexploration spreading into the southern Northwest Territories.

Next door to the Canadian gas capital of Calgary, the Lochendwell underlined the industry’s predicament. The sponsors –Canadian 88 Energy Corp., Canadian Occidental Petroleum Co. andPrize Energy Inc. — told the AEUB they are after a rich prize. Thegeologists believe they may have tracked down an entirely newformation containing up to 1 Tcf of reserves. But technicalanalogies with other areas also suggest the deposit will be 34%hydrogen sulphide, which is at the high end of the industry scalebut not rare in the foothills country where Calgary fills a valleyroutinely blasted by west winds out of the mountains.

The Lochend well is so large, deep and potent that itautomatically rates an official designation as “critical,” a statuswhich since the early 1980s has required special gear plus advanceplanning for emergencies including detailed evacuation programs forsurrounding areas. Regional health authorities warned that a leakor blowout could force residents out of their homes in tens ofthousands. Sour gas is so potent that even tiny concentrationsmeasured in hundredths of a % can arouse great offense andindignation over its characteristic odor of rotten eggs across wideareas. The substance is popularly blamed for a range of ailmentsranging from respiratory problems to stillbirths among cattle andhumans.

After deliberating for more than a year, the AEUB finallydecided sour-gas drilling is still acceptable, even close to amajor population center. By Alberta standards, the decision said,”the public safety risks associated with the proposed well arerepresentative of normal industrial risks accepted bysociety…these risks are similar to existing facilities and areacceptable if managed through strict adherence to the risk controlmeasures required in the existing regulations.”

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