Canaries in Coal Mines


Diana Daunheimer

Dirty Air

By David Kattenburg

In the rolling foothills of the Canadian Rockies, where cattle peacefully graze and ranchers retire to handsome chalets, surrounded by fresh air and gorgeous vistas, a purple haze hovers.

Diana Daunheimer

Diana Daunheimer

Gases burned off in the course of “completing” southern Alberta’s thousand-odd hydraulically fractured oil and gas wells are being blamed not only for air pollution, but for a litany of health complaints among local residents: chronic coughing; acute fatigue and memory loss; weeping rashes; hair loss among women; a pediatric tumor and a case of leukemia.

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These are not the whinging sort. Long-time residents of the fertile Lochend district an hour’s drive north of Calgary, between Cochrane and Didsbury, they are family farmers and professionals, several with oil industry credentials.

Their request of provincial government and oil industry regulators is simple: Monitor the air. Determine the makeup of gases spewing out of hydraulically fractured oil and gas wells, and the products of their incineration prior to well closure and the start of production.

Flare stack, the Lochend, Alberta

While all phases of gas production generate emissions, it’s the “completion” stage prior to the start of gas flow that worries locals the most. Here, a witch’s brew of gases billowing from wells that have been dug kilometers into the earth in both vertical and horizontal “stages,” then hydraulically fractured to open up “tight” formations, get vented or burned off. Those gases include a host of volatile organic compounds, plus chemicals used in the fracking process, some of them secret ingredients in drillers’ recipes. Radon gas may also be present. How these compounds react when incinerated is anyone’s guess – and the subject of academic debate.

Recent expert reviews commissioned by Environment Canada and Health Canada indicate that venting and flaring of “unconventional” oil/gas wells release a wide range of toxics and carcinogens, including the notorious BTEXs – benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, and xylene. Volatile organic pollutants can combine with nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide to produce ground-level ozone linked to respiratory disease, the Council of Canadian Academies reported earlier this year.

“The mixtures of chemicals associated with shale gas activities are generally unknown and untested, making it difficult to predict and assess risk from direct/indirect exposures,” the Council reported in early 2014. “Public health surveillance, leading to epidemiological studies or rigorous health impact assessments of shale gas extraction activities, has not been conducted.”

Nielle Hawkwood

Nielle Hawkwood

As it happens, the BTEXs and other toxics are among fifty pollutants Alberta industries are required to maintain below emission limits, under provincial Ambient Air Quality Objectives and Guidelines. However, in the oil-rich Canadian province of Alberta, it’s the “arms-length” Energy Regulator (AER) that regulates industry, and the AER only requires drillers to monitor for sulfur dioxide. The AER prides itself on having reduced venting and flaring volumes (down to a current level of about 900 million cubic meters per year), but defends its SO2–only monitoring policy as practical and responsible.

In an exchange of email notes, a spokesman for the Alberta department of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (AESRD) declined to confirm or deny that oil and gas companies are exempt from his department’s ambient air guidelines. “Instead of conducting ambient monitoring for all pollutants listed in Alberta’s Ambient Air Quality Objectives,” AESRD spokesperson Jason Maloney wrote in an e-mail note, “venting and flaring is proactively managed to minimize emissions in the first place. We are minimizing and controlling pollutants in the effluent streams rather than simply allowing them to disperse into the air.”

Asked how anyone might know if hazardous pollutants in the AESRD’s list of controlled substances were being minimized if only one (among the least toxic) was being monitored, Maloney declined to respond. “For monitoring of oil sands, oil and natural gas, and coal you will need to speak to the Alberta Energy Regulator,” Maloney noted.

Bob Willard, Senior Advisor, Alberta Energy Regulator

Bob Willard, Senior Advisor, Alberta Energy Regulator

Over at the Energy Regulator, ten floors above downtown Calgary, senior advisor Bob Willard confirms: “a totally accurate composition … I would certainly volunteer that, no, we do not have totally accurate, comprehensive information on flare composition. We have it for the volumes, but not necessarily for the compositions.”

Enforcement of air quality guidelines, Willard says, is the equal responsibility of both the Regulator and Alberta Environment.

Should the composition of vented and incinerated oil well emissions be comprehensively monitored, as Lochend residents are requesting? And where do air monitoring meetings stand? No Albertan in a position of authority wants to answer the question. Alberta Health Services “does not regulate the energy industry,” AHS spokesperson Shannon Evans wrote in an e-mail, “so questions about the potential for new regulations of Alberta’s energy industry are for Alberta Energy Regulator to answer.”

The AER’s media liaison says that Alberta Health & Wellness (of which Health Services is a part) is “leading the initiative.” But a Health & Wellness spokesperson would neither confirm nor deny that his department is leading an air monitoring initiative, or provide basic background on the origins, scope or timeline of these discussions.

Anxious for their voices to be heard, Lochend residents report that numerous meetings have taken place, with all concerned parties and a variety of environmental science experts present. Cost quotes for a comprehensive air monitoring study range upwards of CAN $100,000. No one wants to foot the bill.

In the midst of these discussions, a University of Calgary eco-toxicologist specializing in the use of birds as health “sentinels” has been introduced to Lochend residents by Alberta Health Services. Dr. Judit Smits proposes to set up bird boxes in the vicinity of venting/flaring operations. Once birds have moved in this coming spring, passive chemical monitors will be placed beneath the boxes. Quantitative readings on airborne toxics will be correlated with the physiology of nesting birds and their offspring.

Dr. Judit Smits, University of Calgary

Dr. Judit Smits, University of Calgary

Announcement of the bird box project at a recent air monitoring meeting reportedly convinced one drilling operator to halt flaring of a nearby gas well. If a few bird boxes are all it takes to stanch the flow of toxic gases, residents want as many as they can get. For residents of Alberta’s lovely Lochend district, the metaphor is poignant. Canaries in coal mines themselves, they appreciate the assistance of feathered friends.

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