Alberta’s Tar Sands II

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Alberta’s Tar Sands II is the sequel to the cover story featured in Revolve #5 Summer 2012, Alberta’s Tar Sands.

Residents of the Peace River region in Alberta province question whether existing regulations are designed to protect human health and the environment or to facilitate the rapid and profitable development of tar sands, writes Jenny Christensson.

Sign posted in protest by Andy Labreque on his property.

Sign posted in protest by Andy Labreque on his property.

Unexplained Symptoms

“I thought we lost him last night,” Carmen Langer concludes, visibly shaken by his memories from the night before. He had been called over to his parents’ house at 2:00 a.m. to help his father, Richard Langer, who had fallen seriously ill, suffering from convulsions, vomiting and a loss of bladder control. Father and son attribute this episode to regular exposure to harmful emissions from the nearby Cold Heavy Oil Production with Sand (CHOPs) mining operation run by Canadian oil producer Baytex.

Since the production facility started operating, Carmen has experienced a variety of symptoms such as difficulties breathing, stiffness in his hands, and strange dreams. During peak emissions periods, he claims: “We get gassed so bad that we cannot even function, we can no longer work.” As a farmer, Carmen has observed worrying health problems in his herd of cattle, such as premature births, birth defects and an increase in kidney and lung problems. His father has noticed that diversity within the bird population has decreased, while the deer have not produced any fawns in recent years.

Richard (left) and Carmen Langer.

Richard (left) and Carmen Langer.

The Langers are one of several families in the Three Creeks area in Peace River, Alberta, who have complained of suffering from a range of symptoms, including headaches, sore throats, breathing difficulties and nausea. Alain Labreque made the difficult decision to abandon the home he had constructed on his father’s land when he was unable to get rid of the chemical smell that had permeated the house. He says: “Our permanent house has become an unlivable environment.”

His brother, Donald Labreque, whose house is situated across the street from 16 oil tanks, was at first reluctant to move, but uncertainty about the potential harmful effects of the emissions being pumped into the air within 500 meters of his home persuaded him to relocate with his pregnant wife and toddler. Uncomfortable with selling their properties and passing the problem on to an unsuspecting buyer and hopeful that the problems will be solved in the near future, both brothers have been forced to accept the financial burden of paying rental accommodation while the houses they own stand empty.

“From a legal standpoint they’re correct, they’re operating within their limits, but from a social standpoint it’s often horrible out there.” 
-Frank Oberle, Member of Alberta Legislative Assembly.

Both Alain and Donald Labreque approached Baytex with their concerns, expecting prompt corrective action. Donald Labreque met with company executives, who initially seemed predisposed to help and even offered compensation should the Labreques choose to move; however, when he and his wife Erin expressed an interest in taking up their offer, it was withdrawn, leaving them with the impression that “they were bluffing us just to see how serious we were or if we were just fishing for money.” His brother had a similar experience, at first meeting with a positive, helpful attitude and assurances that the problem would be fixed, and yet the noxious odors and their unexplained symptoms have persisted.

Legal Degradation?

In January 2010, concerned residents formed the Three Creeks Working Group – a joint collaboration between residents, industry and government that works towards addressing issues related to developments in the oil patch. Frank Oberle is the Peace River MLA (Member of the Alberta Legislative Assembly) and an active member of the group. He claims: “In Alberta, we believe we can develop our resources and have a clean environment.” But he acknowledges that the Three Creeks emissions problem is difficult to rectify because the oil companies do not appear to be contravening regulations. Oberle clarifies that “right now the oil companies are adhering to their license limits – if they weren’t this would be really easy to solve.”

Frank Oberle (left) and Carmen Langer.

Oil Patch Regulators

Regulation of the development of the oil patch in Alberta falls predominantly into the remit of two provincial bodies: the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) and Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD).

ERCB describes itself as “an independent, quasi-judicial agency of the Government of Alberta that regulates the safe, responsible and efficient development of Alberta’s energy resources.” Tasked with the assessment and approval of proposed tar sands mining operations and subsequent monitoring and enforcement, the ERCB is at the same time part of Alberta Energy – the ministry whose principal function is to assess and collect non-renewable resource royalties, bringing the regulator’s claim to independence into question.

ESRD is a separate ministry and states that they, “as proud stewards of air, land, water and biodiversity, will lead the achievement of desired environmental outcomes and sustainable development of natural resources for Albertans.” The ERCB publishes and enforces guidelines for industry operating practices, while ESRD issues regulations and guidelines concerning environmental impacts of oil patch activity, including air monitoring and reporting guidelines.

Venting and Flaring versus Conservation

The bitumen deposits in the Peace River area are too deep for surface mining and are extracted using in situ extraction techniques. Some deposits can be recovered by using steam injection, which heats the bitumen so that it can flow to a well and be pumped to the surface. The Baytex operation in Three Creeks uses an alternative, cold production method known as Cold Heavy Oil Production with Sand (CHOPs), which pumps bitumen together with sand to the surface from 600 meter deep deposits. The bitumen is stored in heated tanks above ground at temperatures of up to 120 degrees, producing a build-up of gasses that need to be removed. The options for disposing of these gasses are venting (releasing the gasses into the air), flaring (burning off the gasses) or conservation (capturing the gasses and re-using or selling them).

Cold Heavy Oil Production with Sand (CHOPs) pumps bitumen together with sand to the surface from 600 meter deep deposits.

Having observed that Baytex were venting gasses from the tanks on a continuous basis, Donald and Erin Labreque decided to ascertain whether the company was indeed operating within guidelines. ERCB Directive 060 details operational guidelines for “Upstream Petroleum Industry Flaring, Incinerating and Venting”, which permits companies to release into the air “solution gas” that accompanies bitumen and crude if it is not economical to capture the gas. Sites flaring and venting combined volumes greater than 900 m3 per day and not conserving are required to review conservation economics once a year. The basis of these guidelines prioritizes the economic benefit to the operator over the health and environmental impacts of the emissions.

Furthermore, the ERCB relies on monitoring and financial information compiled by the operator – an approach that amounts to self-regulation. If Baytex are either emitting less than 900 m3 per day or if they are able to demonstrate that it is not economical to capture the gas, they are operating within guidelines, regardless of the impact on local residents. The guidelines do stipulate that the gasses must be conserved if the volumes emitted are greater than 900 m3 daily and the wells are within 500 meters of a residence; the Labreque house is within 500 meters of the Baytex site, but they would need to prove that Baytex are exceeding the emissions levels indicated.

MLA Oberle acknowledges that regulations need to be enhanced and that companies need to have greater social responsibility to address emissions complaints: “From a legal standpoint they’re correct, they’re operating within their limits, but from a social standpoint it’s often horrible out there.” Can companies be expected to ignore profits in favor of behaving in a socially responsible manner?

According to ERCB statistics, flaring has increased 66% since 2009. The ERCB attributes this to an increase in crude oil and crude bitumen production combined with low gas prices “which makes the economic viability of conservation more challenging.” [For statistics on venting and flaring in Canada, please refer to the ERCB’s Upstream Petroleum Industry Flaring and Venting Report.]

Donald Labreque’s house, now abandoned.

Donald Labreque’s house, now abandoned.

Air Quality

Venting and flaring are only half of the equation for emissions regulations: the other half concerns the monitoring of air quality combined with evaluating the impact of hazardous compounds in the air on human health. Concerned about the potential harmful effects of the CHOPs emissions, the Three Creeks Working Group demanded to know what was in the “solution gas” and what it might do to them.
For several years, scientist Ian Johnson, has been trying to find answers, carrying out different independent studies into emissions from heated bitumen storage tanks based on samples from local sites. His 2007 report identified many potentially hazardous compounds, including: Biphenyls, Benzenes, Carbazoles, Dibenzothiophenes, Fluorenes, Naphalenes and Phenanthrenes. These chemicals belong to a group known as aromatic hydrocarbons, which are potentially harmful to human health.

With the exception of benzene, none of the compounds that Johnson identified are listed in the Alberta Ambient Air Quality Objectives and Guidelines, published by ESRD – which means that there are no official limits set for these compounds. Johnson notes that “most of the chemicals of concern […] have not undergone extensive toxicological testing” – making it difficult to gauge the potential harm.  He was able to demonstrate that vapor concentration is very sensitive to temperature and that lowering tank storage temperatures reduces the concentration of hazardous compounds.

The basis of legal guidelines prioritizes the economic benefit to the operator over the health/environmental impact of the emissions.

Johnson carried out another study in 2012 using the condensate of vapors from a heated bitumen storage tank at Royal Dutch Shell’s Cliffedale operation. His study confirmed the presence of alkylated naphthalenes in significant measures. When research carried out later in the year for ESRD did not discover these compounds, Johnson reviewed the government study finding that the method had been modified in such a way that would “prevent the detection of these compounds.”

Johnson alleges that the tests carried out by ESRD and Alberta Technology Futures follows one of the methods recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but substitutes the XAD-2 resin called for with Polyurethane Foam, which results in the under recovery of certain compounds, including naphthalene. Similarly, Johnson’s independent analysis of discrete air samples collected during high emissions periods (March 2011 – October 2012) detected significantly higher levels of reduced sulphur compounds than the regulation AMD continuous monitoring system in place, as the graphs below demonstrate.

Johnson outlined his discoveries to Minister Diana McQueen, in charge of ESRD, who forwarded his concerns to Alberta Health. Fred Horne, Minister of Health, responded by reiterating the government position: “To date, the reviews have indicated that there is no immediate or long-term risk to health or safety posed by the chemical concentrations detected.” He points out that Minister of Energy, Ken Hughes, has requested a review of regulations governing emissions and promises that the review is to “outline potential alternatives for best management practices and best available economically achievable technology to reduce those emissions.”

Carmen Langer administers medicine to a sickly calf.

Carmen Langer administers medicine to a sickly calf.

“Stop Baytex”

According to the Peace River Record Gazette, the ERCB has responded to more than 600 complaints, 400 inspections and 1,300 investigations in the Three Creeks area over the last two years with little perceived change in emissions.

Residents are frustrated by existing venting and flaring regulations that seem to favor the interests of the oil producers and the apparent lack of regulations governing air quality standards. They are unable to reconcile their experience of living with the health effects caused by the foul-smelling emissions with the Alberta government’s findings that there is “no immediate or long-term risk to health or safety.” They are more convinced by Johnson’s research and find the province’s response to his allegations inadequate. Their frustration is compounded by the knowledge that the technology exists to capture the “solution gas” that is in use nearby at one of Shell’s facilities. Even Johnson’s analysis demonstrating that temperature reductions in the tanks greatly reduce the concentrations of harmful compounds has not been acted on – Baytex continues to heat the bitumen at temperatures of up to 120 degrees. Residents are continuing their campaign to “Stop Baytex” until a “closed system” that captures the harmful gasses is introduced at the facility.

The family room in Alain Labreque’s abandoned house.

The family room in Alain Labreque’s abandoned house.

The predicament facing the residents of Three Creeks has the potential to spread to other communities in Alberta as in situ development continues at an accelerated pace.  In the words of Frank Oberle: “The problem that we have is a cumulative effect between the number of individual operations for each company and the number of different companies operating on this landscape and that has greatly increased in the last two years here.”

The ERCB would be in a position to ameliorate the situation by issuing fewer licenses or by tightening regulations or insisting on more thorough compliance, but thus far they have shown no signs of pursuing these courses. It was announced in early 2013, the head of the ERCB will be Gerry Protti, an oil industry veteran and founder of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, a move that does not inspire confidence that circumstances are likely to change in the near future.


Photographer: since 2000, Alan Gignoux has been a reportage photographer.  He has explored the effects of displacement on communities in different parts of the world, including the Middle East, North Africa and Canada.  More recently, he has concentrated on environmental questions, such as industrial pollution in the Russian Urals and, for the past two years, the environmental damage caused by the booming tar sands industry in Alberta, Canada.

Writer: Jenny Christensson is a freelance art curator and journalist. She has worked with Alan Gignoux, researching photojournalism projects, writing articles, curating photography exhibitions and preparing catalogs and books.


This feature appeared in Revolve #8 Summer 2013, pages 12-18.


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