While oilmen equate the smell of oil with the smell of money, it's raising a big stink in the Peace Country oilpatch.
Merna Dallyn says a hydrocarbon odour was so bad a month ago she had to gather up the grandchildren she was babysitting and evacuate her farm house in the Three Creeks area, about 40 kilometres east of Peace River. "It was nauseating and gave you a headache. It was really bad."
She was especially worried about the health of her grandchildren, aged 18 months and three years, whom she cares for every day.
Alberta Environment and the Energy Resources Conservation Board responded to a number of complaints and dispatched a mobile air monitoring unit to the area, but have yet to pinpoint the source of the smell.
"All the companies have agreed that there is an odour issue, acknowledge that it originates from industry activity and have agreed to jointly work together to solve the problem," the ERCB has advised area residents.
Residents initially suspected a Shell Peace River thermal plant that injects steam into the ground to liquefy the thick bitumen in the underground formations so it can be pumped to the surface. The plant, just 10 kilometres from the Dallyn farm, also produces asphalt that it keeps heated in large storage tanks. But Alberta Environment says it doesn't believe the smell is coming from the plant. Shell's plant spews up to 14 tonnes of sulphur into the air per day, but sulphur has been absent in the air samples collected so far.
In a March 5 notice sent to residents, the ERCB suggests the odours are likely the result of the venting of gases from individual well sites in the area. Under Alberta regulations, energy companies can release into the air "solution gas" that accompanies bitumen and crude if it is not economical to capture the gas.
Test results released to residents show the air contains carcinogens benzene, toluene and xylene, although the ERCB says the levels do not exceed acceptable limits.
Rancher Carmen Langer, who previously worked at the Shell plant and as an oilfield consultant, says he is skeptical of claims the air is safe.
"They're saying it is not at dangerous levels, but any time you have cancer-causing agents floating in the air, it's pretty dangerous."
Chris Severson-Baker of the Pembina Institute concurs there are no safe levels of exposure to benzene.
"Any level has the potential to be carcinogenic."
The industry practice of venting gases into the air has increased in the past three years after five years of steady decline -- and the big culprit is crude bitumen production. The ERCB's most recent report on flaring and venting shows there was nearly a 26-per-cent increase in venting from crude bitumen batteries from 2007 to 2008.
Severson-Baker estimates that the 292 million cubic metres of gas vented in 2008 would provide heat and hot water to 80,203 homes for a year -- more than a quarter of all the homes in Edmonton.
He says companies are required to assess the economics of an oil or bitumen well if it produces more than 900 cubic metres of gas per day, but the assessment doesn't include the economic value of the oil from the well -- just the value of the gas. That allows hundreds of profitable bitumen wells to vent gas.
"The reality is by far the majority of wells could absorb the cost of conserving the solution gas, but companies will not want to do that voluntarily," he says.
"If we're serious about eliminating or driving down flaring and venting in Alberta, we have to say that we consider this gas a waste product and it is not acceptable any more to flare or vent it to the atmosphere because of odour concerns, health concerns and climate change."
Shell, one of five area oilpatch companies working to resolve the Three Creeks issue, is moving toward capturing solution gas from its wells in its Cliffdale field this year, although it contends its wells, more than 20 kilometres away from the affected residents, are not likely the cause of the problem. Shell spokeswoman Adrienne Lamb says the company also hopes to dramatically reduce sulphur emissions from its thermal plant this summer. To their credit, the companies have set up an air monitoring trailer on Langer's farm.
ERCB spokesman Darin Barter says the oilpatch regulator has directed the oil companies to provide by Thursday documentation of all odours, incidents and upsets at their facilities, as well as the volumes of gas they have vented from their facilities. It has also demanded they produce action plans for the mitigation or elimination of venting.
"The ERCB takes these concerns very seriously," Barter said. "The ERCB will continue to direct resources toward inspections of all facilities in the area to ensure they meet strict regulatory requirements related to odours, venting and public safety."
Area resident Karen Dziengielewski says Albertans deserve regulations that ban venting.
"It's not for just my husband's and my health. It's for everybody's health. We have a right to breathe clean air."
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