Gas Leaks Sour Landowners

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Pipelines lawfully close to rural homes can turn silently lethal

A quick and silent killer, sour gas has been known to drift for several kilometres from ruptured pipelines and wellheads, remaining highly lethal to its unsuspecting victims, who can black out and stop breathing within seconds.

Yet under current regulations, gas pipelines and wells can be placed as close as 100 metres from people's homes. In northeast British Columbia, where the bulk of the province's natural-gas reserves are, that fact--coupled with reports of injuries and deaths from sour-gas leaks--has some landowners more aggressively challenging gas-company proposals.

As the Georgia Straight divulged last week ("Killing Fields"), B.C.'s Oil and Gas Commission reports that there were 73 potentially hazardous sour-gas leaks in the northeast during the past five years.

The list covers only those incidents reported to the OGC by energy companies.

That causes local resident Linda Haugen to question its validity. She and husband, Rick Koechl, built a house 17 years ago near Charlie Lake, a short drive north of Fort St. John. Almost from the start, she regularly caught the sulphurous scent of gas leaking from nearby wells. "We were constantly getting a smell from it," Haugen told the Straight in a phone interview. "I was getting headaches, and this was during a time that we were thinking of starting a family, and we were saying, 'What kind of impact is this going to have?' "

Moe Holman, now retired and living in Calgary, spent 45 years in the energy industry, much of it in northern B.C. and Alberta. He said Haugen's experiences are common and that a more realistic leak tally would be in the "thousands".

When it comes to ensuring that such leaks happen well away from places where people live, Haugen and other residents are in a poor bargaining position. That's because current laws state that landowners do not own what is beneath them. Once the province leases underground rights to gas companies, the companies may freely explore and develop all lands--private and public--subject to certain rules such as the "setback" provisions in B.C.'s Sour Pipeline Regulation.

Those provisions state that companies may place sour-gas pipelines and wells as close as 100 metres to rural homes if they believe that the suspected "release" rate of poisonous gas will be between 0.3 and six cubic metres per second. Companies are required to set pipelines and wells farther away from urban centres: 500 metres in the event of a suspected leak of between 0.3 and two cubic metres per second, and 1.5 kilometres in the event of a suspected leak of between two and six cubic metres per second.

The setback provisions are an obvious nod to the lethality of sour gas. Hydrogen sulphide, or H2S, levels of just 500 parts per million in sour gas can trigger respiratory paralysis and unconsciousness, leading quickly to death. Such levels have been grossly exceeded in some leaks in northeast B.C., including one in February 2001 that killed a young Fort St. John man named Ryan Strand. The H2S reading in that incident was 100,000 parts per million. In 2000, up to five million cubic feet of the poisonous gas was released into the air in northeast B.C. from just one ruptured pipe.

Despite the obvious health and safety issues associated with H2S, landowners generally only learn of a gas company's intentions when a land agent knocks on their front door. Land agents usually work on contract and, after informing people about company exploration and development plans, often act as intermediaries. The agents may make financial offers if company proposals involve activity on a property owner's land, and they may then act as middlemen in the ensuing negotiations between company and homeowner. If the parties can't reach mutually satisfactory arrangements, they may appeal to the province's Mediation and Arbitration Board, which will decide the outcome.

Haugen said that in the early years in her new home, developments sometimes happened without warning. She recalled how she and her husband drove home one day to see a column of flame shooting into the air from the forest behind their house. Unknown to them, an energy-industry contractor had erected a tall, pipelike flare stack and commenced burning off sour gas in order to determine whether or not an abandoned well could be brought back into production.

Also at about that time, an exploration crew detonated explosives as part of a mapping exercise of the region's underground gas reservoirs. The resulting shock waves loosened the subsurface and contaminated the groundwater table. "It changed the flavour of our well water for a day," Haugen said. "It scared the daylights out of us, because if you don't have water, what do you have?"

More recently, Haugen added, she and her rural neighbours were forced to grapple with a sour-gas-well proposal in their region. The company, Samson Canada Ltd., initially proposed putting an exploratory well on a property about 500 metres from Haugen's home. That owner, who works in the energy industry, wasn't interested. "He was very good and said, 'You can't put it there. It's going to affect their [Haugen's] household.' So the company went across the road and talked to another landowner," Haugen said, adding that companies commonly pit neighbour against neighbour to get what they want.

Haugen said that when the second landowner said he would allow the well, the land agent returned to the previous neighbour, who owned a quarter section of land (64 hectares), and said: "If you let us put it on your land, you can put it pretty much wherever you want. But if we go with the other landowner, you have no say where it goes and it could have more of an impact on you."

He relented. But because of his working knowledge of the industry, he got concessions from the company. If it hit gas, the company could put in the well but it could not put any flare stacks, storage facilities, or compressors on the land. (Compressors build pressure in the gas lines and are extremely loud.)

The company's initial "emergency evacuation plan" called for Haugen's family to make it out of the area by a little-used road that would take them away from the proposed well site. The main road was not an option because it came too close to the well.

"There's a back route out of our place that, under perfect conditions, you can get out on. In other words, no rain whatsoever, and definitely no snow, because it's not plowed and it's not maintained by Highways whatsoever," Haugen said.

Only after concerted efforts to convince the company that escape preparations were insufficient was the emergency-evacuation plan amended. An all-terrain vehicle with a sealed passenger cab and tractor treads that allowed it to go virtually anywhere was stationed at the well site in case a sour-gas leak occurred during well construction and an emergency evacuation was required.

As luck had it, the well did not "prove up" for gas and, along with a second well also drilled without success, was abandoned. But Haugen said she knows of other residents in rural areas just outside Fort St. John who haven't been so lucky. She said family friends (who declined to be interviewed by the Straight) ended up with a compressor station next door and a sour-gas well on either side of them, both about 700 metres away. The incessant noise of the compressor drove the husband nearly mad. His wife, meanwhile, has been diagnosed with intestinal cancer. Their son has glaucoma, and their daughter has erratic white-blood-cell counts. Even the family dog has tumours. The parents suspect that persistent low levels of sour gas in the air explain their misfortunes.

Although Haugen and Holman both said the Oil and Gas Commission's list of reported leaks during the past five years only scratches the surface, it nonetheless provides some insight into where leaks have most frequently occurred and which companies have been most involved.

As reported earlier in the Straight, the OGC list is incomplete, at least to the extent that two sour-gas releases at one Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. well near the tiny community of Buick Creek are not included. One of those leaks killed Ryan Strand. When those two incidents are included, the companies reporting the most leaks are CNRL (10 leaks), Petro-Canada (eight), Domcan Boundary Corp. (five), Talisman Energy Inc. (five), and Wascana Energy Inc. (four). These five companies accounted for almost 43 percent of all reported leaks.

Three areas appear to be more prone to sour-gas leaks than others. The first is Buick Creek, 45 kilometres north of Fort St. John, where eight leaks have been reported. The region is home to a small farming community as well as the Blueberry Native reserve. The second is Tommy Lakes, where six leaks have been reported; Tommy Lakes is a three-hour drive north of Fort St. John along the Alaska Highway. The third-highest number of reported incidents, five, were in the Beaver River area, north of Fort Nelson.

In many cases, the leaks occurred far from urban centres. And that's just fine by Haugen. The farther away the better.