Families applaud emissions report

Heavy oil operations | Report recommends requiring gas capture by area energy companies

Alberta families who have long complained about the effects of oil and gas emissions feel vindicated by a recent report from the province’s energy regulator.


“Odours caused by heavy oil operation in the Peace River area need to be eliminated to the extent possible as they have the potential to cause some of the health symptoms of area residents,” said a March 31 report by the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), a government agency mandated to ensure the safe, environmentally responsible development of Alberta’s oil and gas resources.


It made several recommendations requiring that all produced gas be captured within four months in the Reno and Three Creeks area, which are the areas of biggest concern to nearby landowners.


“The report confirms what we’ve been saying for years, that emissions have the potential to cause health concerns and sickness,” said Alain Labrecque, who moved his family from Alberta to northern British Col-umbia to escape problems of emissions from nearby oil activity.


“It’s a very, very good start.”


The Labrecques are one of seven families that have moved from the Reno area because of the heavy oil activity.


The recommendations were aimed at all companies using cold heavy oil production systems (CHOPS) in the Peace River region.


Heavy oil, which is thick and doesn’t flow easily, is augered from the ground and heated in production tanks before being transported for further processing.


It’s the emissions vented from these tanks during the heating process that have caused the most problems for nearby residents. They want all tanks to have tank-top gas control systems. 


Complaints from residents began to increase in 2009 when oil industry activity increased. 


The report also recommended operational changes to eliminate venting, reduce flaring and conserve produced gas where feasible.


It said the AER should develop local regulations to deal with the heavy oil industry in the area.


Keith Wilson, a lawyer for a group of landowners, said the unique heavy oil in the area is key to the problem. The heavy oil produced in that particular geological formation falls through a “regulation gap,” he added.


“The regulators don’t have the authority to deal with the problem,” he said.


The CHOPS process doesn’t need to follow the same regulations as more conventional oil and gas production.


“The regulators never envisioned this production method on this scale so close to families,” said Wilson. 


Brian Labrecque said he is pleased with the panel’s findings.


“It confirms and supports everything we have been saying for the past 10 years,” said Labrecque, who also moved his family off the farm.


The pollution control equipment would eliminate odours and greatly reduces emissions, said Labrecque.


The AER will likely comment on the report’s recommendations by the middle of April, but it may be months or years before some of them become law.


In January, the Labrecque families and some of their neighbours filed an injunction against Baytex in the Court of Queen’s Bench. They’ve asked that Baytex, the main operator in the Reno field, halt its operations for eight months until they put the necessary emission capturing equipment on their tanks. 


Wilson said pollution equipment on oil tanks limits production capacity.


The 86 heavy oil tanks in the Reno field are concentrated in an area 1 1/2 kilometres wide by 10 km long and are only half a kilometre from the closest farmhouse. The main production systems in the Three Creeks area are larger but farther away from the closest home.


“It’s a problem for both communities. It’s more of an acute problem in Reno,” said Wilson.


He expects the Court of Queen’s Bench judge to rule on the injunction by April 21.


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