WATCH: Alberta Gas: Battle over wells wages in pristine valley

News clips joined into one and uploaded to Youtube January 19, 2015

W-FIVE’s Fueling Fears aired nationally in Canada on February 7, 2009. Two days later, the Harper government’s anti-terrorist squad began harassing Jessica Ernst but not the others interviewed.

WATCH: Alberta Gas: Battle over wells wages in pristine valley CTV W5, February 7, 2009.

Removed from the internet some time in 2012. The main link and links below were not disabled, rather they were sent for a few years to a video about terrorists:

W-FIVE : Fueling Fears : Fueling Fears, part one

W-FIVE : Fueling Fears : Fueling Fears, part two

If you talk to Albertans, most will tell you about how important the petroleum industry is to their province. But the harmonious relationship between people and industry is starting to wear thin; perhaps because of the huge number of oil and gas wells being drilled in the province.

In the past five years alone, 90,000 new wells were approved and many in Alberta think that industry is starting to encroach on the lives of its citizenry. They worry about the environmental cost and the health consequences of living so close to oil and gas wells.

Of particular concern to Albertans is one of the last undeveloped tracts of land in the province. The Pekisko Valley, on the eastern slopes of the Rockies, is home to many native species like elk, grizzly and moose. The region is also an important water source for much of southern Alberta.

It is in this unspoiled valley that oil and gas giant Petro Canada wants to tap into the underground gas reserves. It would mean building 51 kilometers of pipeline with all the accompanying roads and infrastructure. Petro Canada plans to drill 11 sour gas wells that will deliver the gas through the new pipelines to an existing processing plant. The gas is called “sour” because it contains hydrogen sulfide or H2S, which smells like rotten eggs.

Rancher Gordon Cartwright thinks big oil’s footprint in the Pekisko Valley will be the beginning of the end. “It’ll lead to the unwinding of the ranching community that holds this landscape together in terms of the ecological process,” he complained.

But it’s not just beautiful views that could be ruined by the drilling of sour gas. When H2S is released into the atmosphere it’s toxic and in high enough concentrations it can even be fatal. Since 2002, four oil-patch workers have been killed and 26 workers have filed disability injury claims after exposure to hydrogen sulfide gas.

Sour gas exposure can cause long term damage. Ten years ago, the Graf family owned a prosperous farm near the town of Vulcan in southern Alberta. In 1998, a nearby sour gas well blew, spewing the toxic chemicals down wind onto their farm and onto Darryl Graf.

Within a minute of hearing a huge roar and spotting a big flare over the well Darryl started “to get short of breath”. He rushed to get back to the house and according to his mother Barbara, when he did, “he just came in and laid down on the floor.”

Before the blast, Darryl was an athletic 21-year-old with a bright future in farming. Since then, Darryl has suffered from brain damage, heart problems, seizures and gastro-intestinal problems he blames on exposure to sour gas.

Fearing another exposure to sour gas could kill Darryl, the Graf family has been in a protracted dispute with the board in charge of regulating and approving new oil and gas projects, the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) in Calgary.

Fleeing their farm and moving to a trailer 20 kilometres away, they are trying to get the ERCB to stop approving wells close to their farm. But since their move, the ERCB has approved the construction of new gas wells, just a few kilometres away from the Graf’s new home and they have endured more gas leaks.

While approving new developments is only part of the ERCB’s mandate, the Board is also charged with protecting public safety, the environment and ensuring industry compliance.

Journalist and author Andrew Nikiforuk, who has written about the oil industry for 20 years, believes that the ERCB does a poor job of protecting public interest. The reason, he claims, is clear: “The board is 58 per cent funded by industry so that a regulator that is funded by the very people that it’s supposed to regulate is, by very definition, a compromised agency.”

W-FIVE spoke with ranchers who feel the ERCB takes the side of the oil and gas industry, but ERCB spokesman Bob Curran countered: “We hear that at times from landowners. But what people don’t often hear are the concerns that we hear from the industry and they frequently say we have too many regulations. There are too many consultation requirements. We’re too green. We’re too public friendly.”

Drayton Valley disaster

Drayton Valley, northwest of Calgary, is a hub for oil and gas development. It is also home to the worst sour gas disaster in Alberta history. In 1982, a well blew near the town of Lodge Pole, killing two workers. It burned out of control for 67 days spewing 280,000 tons of sour gas into the atmosphere. The stench was detectable 1,500 kilometers away in Winnipeg.

Rancher Lawrence Strocher doesn’t believe the ERCB arguments about being “too green”. He witnessed the disaster and recalls that, at the time, local residents were told there was nothing to worry about. Strocher soon found out that everything wasn’t fine, as he experienced a litany of problems with his cattle. But worse still, his son was born nine months after the blowout, with severe birth defects. As time passed, Strocher became convinced that the Lodge Pole gas well blowout and sour gas leak was to blame for his son’s problems.

Strocher worries about the health effects of sour gas wells as they continue to encroach nearer to populated areas. He was part of a large group of parents who lobbied the ERCB to not allow industry to drill close to the local primary school. But in December of 2008, residents were informed that the ERCB had approved plans for two new wells to be drilled about five kilometres away from the school in the valley. Expressing his concerns to W-FIVE, Strocher said, “You’re not going to beat this stuff and somebody’s going to get hurt.”

Nikiforuk agrees and said the board “completely ignored the sentiments of all the local residents and said ‘you guys be damned. We’re going to put these wells in.”

Coal-bed methane

If sour gas wasn’t bad enough, there’s a new way of extracting gas to worry about that may give Albertans reason for concern. Buried beneath the hills of Wheatland County are huge gas deposits trapped within beds of coal. Gas companies now have the technology to extract methane gas from those coal seams. The problem is that drilling might affect the ground water. In the hamlet of Rosebud, resident Jessica Ernst thinks that is why her well water is contaminated with methane gas.

Ernst explained that her water well turned more into a gas well and that sometimes she “couldn’t even close the kitchen sink tap or the bath tub because so much gas was coming out.”

Ernst understands how the oil and gas industry works. She’s an environmental biologist who has worked, for decades, as a consultant in the oil patch. She demonstrated to W-FIVE just how contaminated and undrinkable her water is by taking a match to bottles of water, lighting them on fire.

The Alberta government received so many complaints about the water in Rosebud that they commissioned a study, which was conducted by the Alberta Research Council. The study concluded that industry wasn’t to blame as, according to ERCB spokesman Bob Curran, it’s “naturally occurring methane.” “You get clean water with not much gas and as the water gets drawn down you tend to get more gas,” he said.

Author Nikiforuk told W-FIVE that’s only part of the picture and the Research Council report clearly stated that there was “no fair, consistent or reliable protocol.” According to Nikiforuk, the findings have also been contested by other scientists, who believe there is very clear-cut evidence of industrial contamination of water wells in Alberta. He believes the real problem lies in the fact that there was no baseline water testing done before the drilling started.

In an attempt to make sure this isn’t a problem again, the government believes they have now rectified that complaint and ask all residents within a radius of 600 metres of any new proposed well site if they would like to have their water tested before drilling begins.

Too little, too late for Ernst, who says she continues to live with contaminated water. She maintains the ERCB is supposed to be fair and responsible when deciding on new developments, but she believes “their direction from the government is to rubber stamp those approvals. Don’t let anything get in industries way.”

In the Pekisco Valley – ERCB hearings are now over, and area residents will know soon whether the drilling of gas wells will be approved. Petro Canada spokesperson Kyle Happy said they’ve spent several years researching and planning the development in Pekisco Valley and will make sure it’s done in a safe and environmentally-friendly way. And as Petro Canada points out, they have zoning laws on their side. The valley is considered a multi-use zone that is open to oil and gas development. The ERCB has previously insisted they’ll be watchful that the project is done carefully. [Emphasis added]

[Refer also to:

Alberta Environment/Energy Resources Conservation Board Response to the Report “Potential for Gas Migration Due to Coalbed Methane Development”
The report concludes that gas migration due to natural pathways is unlikely to occur for the areas of active or anticipated CBM development…. It also highlights the potential higher risk for gas migration where there are very shallow coals…. ]

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