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New peril in oilpatch

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The Alberta oilpatch recently took two more giant steps toward controlling Canada's climate, environmental and energy policies.

Under the heading "Modernizing the Regulatory System," the 2010 federal budget removed all energy projects from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and placed environmental reviews in the hands of the Calgary-based, oil and gas industry-friendly National Energy Board.

Shortly thereafter, the federal environment minister -- Calgary Centre-North MP Jim Prentice -- was endowed with vastly enhanced regulatory powers to break apart the environmental assessments of contentious projects so they can be handled piecemeal with no overall evaluation of their impact on land, water and air quality, not to mention climate change and human and other life.

Both changes come as Ottawa and Alberta are preparing to spend $140 million and $2 billion respectively on carbon capture and storage (CCS) and its supposed bonus side-benefit of enhanced oil recovery (EOR.)

Apache Canada Corporation describes itself as "a world leader" in EOR and CCS. " It is receiving $5 million in provincial royalty credits and another $3.1 million in federal grants to "test the concept of a vertical, top-down, acid-gas EOR flood, the first of its kind in the world."

Using carbon dioxide (CO2) for EOR is dubious enough, warns a scientist who was a involved in the IEA (International Energy Agency) Weyburn CO2 Monitoring and Storage Project. But to employ acid gas in EOR creates a whole new level of threat, Dennis LeNeveu continues.

Acid gas contains highly toxic hydrogen sulphide (H2S). Using it for EOR guarantees it is going into an area heavily penetrated by well bores with a high potential for eventual leakage. One breath of H2S at concentrations over 500 parts per million can lead to immediate death. Chronic exposure to lower levels can cause serious health problems for both humans and animals.

"The danger is, after all the available oil is extracted, the oil company leaves with a large volume of acid gas still trapped underground," LeNeveu says. "Well bore seals could eventually fail, allowing this toxin to escape to the atmosphere many years from now."

Meanwhile, oil companies and oil-producing nations around the world are looking to Alberta to begin their own widespread use of acid gas for EOR because in most oil-producing regions of the world, so-called sweet natural gas is depleted.

LeNeveu says the whole CCS risk has not been properly quantified. And his concerns are validated in a major paper released by the Munk Centre for International Studies' Program on Water Issues last September. Researched and written by Edmonton Journal columnist Graham Thomson, the paper says CCS, which it describes as a "major pillar of Canada's climate change plan," is so flawed that to pursue it now, with neither the proper science nor laws in place, would be "sheer folly."

Alberta is a pincushion of about 400,000 wells. Long after the oil is gone, CO2 could leak to the surface, burdening subsequent generations with releases of greenhouse gas. CO2 leakage from an abandoned well bore could asphyxiate people in the immediate area. CO2 can leak arsenic and lead into groundwater supplies. Massive amounts of artificially entombed CO2 can cause earthquakes. Finally, a sudden release of a large cloud of CO2 could asphyxiate all living things caught in it.

Some of the report's statistics are staggering. Just to sequester 25 per cent of global carbon emissions would require an infrastructure twice the size of everything today's oil industry has built in the past century, according to one estimate. "Needless to say, such a technical feat could not be accomplished within a single generation."

Perhaps the most damning section of the report outlines what Thomson calls "Canada's regulation deficit." Public liabilities for long-term disposal of CO2 largely remain an unanswered policy question, the paper says. Unlike the "transparent" U.S. system, Alberta's regulatory regime "is opaque at best and most times simply obscure," the paper says.

While the U.S. EPA has held workshops and public stakeholder meetings on the protection of groundwater, "Canada has held none."

While the EPA proposes CO2 storage sites must show the gas won't endanger U.S. drinking water for 50 years prior to the site's closure, Canada "has not started a transparent rule-setting process to protect drinking water, let alone groundwater."

Concludes the paper: "Given the paucity of groundwater information in Canada and lack of national water standards, the push to accelerate (CCS) could pose real risks to our groundwater resources. In sum, the marriage of a brave new technology with a political fix for an immediate climate problem could have negative long-term consequences for Canadian taxpayers and water drinkers without stabilizing the climate."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 21, 2010 A10

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