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Is temporary air quality monitoring of oil and gas development real action for health protection?

May 25, 2010

On May 18, the BC government announced that a mobile air quality monitoring station has arrived in Peace River Country. Here’s more about the Mobile Air Quality Monitoring Laboratory (MAQML). Surprisingly, the release came from the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources, and not the Ministry of Environment, which is responsible for protecting air quality.

“This initiative is the result of consultation with the public, where communities highlighted the importance of monitoring and reporting on air quality across the Northeast so residents can continue to enjoy the cleanest air possible,” said Minister for Petroleum Resources, Blair Lekstrom. “In addition to this air monitoring lab, the Oil and Gas Commission is facilitating the development of a long-term and ongoing air monitoring program for the region, reaffirming our commitment to ensuring quality of life for residents in the Northeast.”

But the mobile air quality station is certainly in North Eastern BC as a result of the oil and gas industry, which causes West Coast concern that the initiative is more about optics than really protecting the health of the people of the region.

Why Tomslake?

The first stop on the travelling monitoring station’s tour of Peace Country is Tomslake. Last November the residents of Tomslake experienced a dramatic first-hand experience of the health risks associated with oil and gas development when a pipeline operated by Encana sprung a leak, spewing out “sour gas” – gas with dangerously high concentrations of Hydrogen Sulphide. The resulting gas cloud caused the evacuation of about 15 residents and could easily have resulted in fatalities. Despite initially downplaying the seriousness of the situation, the Oil and Gas Commission subsequently found that Encana failed to follow its emergency procedures.

But the mobile air quality station is not going to do anything to protect against oil and gas catastrophes. Air quality monitoring is intended to address health concerns from flaring, low level leakage (“fugitive emissions”) and other incidental air emissions from the oil and gas industry that compromisethe region’s air quality. Of course, once the mobile station has moved on, these lower intensity leaks will remain undetected.

There are legitimate concerns about the air quality in Tomslake, yet I can’t help but think that the MAQML is there in part to put a spin to the residents of Tomslake that something’s being done to protect them. In which case taking real action, rather than just highlighting the problem, would seem to be in order.

It is interesting that all four of the communities that the MAMQL will be visiting are in Blair Lekstrom’s riding – Peace River South - including Groundbirch, Farmington, and Rolla.) Is this just coincidence??

It might make sense if these communities are potentially likely to suffer from high levels of air pollution from the oil and gas industry– but there’s no indication of that. Indeed, when the Tomslake spill occurred last November the Oil and Gas Commission noted that the Hydrogen Sulphide levels from that well were not as high as many others in the northern Peace River region; however, the MAMQL will not cover any areas north of the Peace River, including areas known to have sour gas.

Air quality and the oil and gas industry

There’s no doubt that something needs to be done to address air quality concerns in the Peace River region. According to Environment Canada:

Air pollution emissions from the industry include toxics, such as benzene and particulates, smog precursors, acid emissions and greenhouse gases, such as methane and carbon dioxide. Environment Canada's National Pollutant Release Inventory reports that upstream petroleum activities contribute 21% of the sulphur oxide (SOx), 13% of the nitrogen oxide (NOx), and 19% of the volatile organic compound (VOCs) in Canada.

The US environmental group Earthworks has a more comprehensive list of emissions from the oil and gas industry.

The Peace Environmental Safety Trustees have been calling for a regional sour gas detection system.

“At this point in time, we're the canaries,” said Lois Hill, a PEST member and vocal proponent for stronger oil and gas regulations and increased safety for residents living close to natural gas wells. Hill will often detect odours around her rural Farmington home but is never sure what those odours indicate. “We don't have any knowledge whatsoever of what we're smelling… we talk to each other and say ‘I think that's H2S (sour gas) but if we had the system we'd know what we are smelling.”

Can you imagine how terrifying that would be – am I inhaling a major blow out or ongoing leakage that might kill me, or is it just a bit of background odour?

I emailed Lois Hill to get her opinion on the MAMQL tour of her hometown. She was concerned that the temporary MAMQL might be sited in areas with relatively low H2S readings, thereby giving the government political ammunition against a permanent and complete sour gas detection system.

Yes, we do agree that the media coverage of this temporary, one-time only air monitoring initiative is likely to distract from the day to day, on-going hazard of living beside gas development. … But no matter what the results, we will continue to ask for a live, sentinel air monitoring system for those of us who live surrounded by high pressure gas development.

There’s a big difference between parking the MAQML near Tomslake for 3 weeks to get “baseline data” (it’s impossible to get a true baseline in a region where the industry is already established, although Lois informs me that one of the communities being tested has a lower level of oil and gas development), and having in place a system that will be there when a blow-out or leak occurs. And what about the long promised set-backs between sour gas wells and residential areas that West Coast has been advocating for?

How will the MAMQL actually help protect the residents of the Peace River country against sour gas well blow outs and ongoing emissions from leakage? If having the MAMQL tour the region will somehow confirm the need for a permanent system that will detect catastrophic blowouts and continuing lower-intensity leaks, then that’s a good thing. But the government should be clearer on what that link is, and how the MAMQL will deal with sour gas blow outs, leaks, and other catastrophic accidents. Right now it looks as if the MAMQL may actually work against the goal of comprehensive monitoring of air pollution from oil and gas development in this region.

The press release does promise that the Oil and Gas Commission is looking at the possibility of a regional “air monitoring program”, which is encouraging, if vague. However, until a more permanent solution is in place, a tour by the MAMQL will do little to protect the residents of Peace Country.