Bitumen project approval irks residents near Peace River by Marty Klinkenberg, May 10, 2013, Edmonton Journal
Shell Canada has received regulatory approval to significantly increase bitumen production at an expanded plant near Peace River — an area where residents have raised a stink for three years about odours emanating from existing operations. On April 26, the province’s Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) approved Shell’s application for an in situ project at Carmon Creek that includes two processing facilities with the capacity to produce a combined 80,000 barrels per day. The company uses steam-injected technology at its complex 40 kilometres northeast of Peace River to produce about 17,000 barrels per day.
The government’s approval of the project is infuriating residents of the community in northern Sunrise County, including some who have moved away after complaining about the smell and health issues they suspect are related to pollution.
An industry-funded air quality monitoring program has failed to detect any unusual contaminants, and the ERCB says emissions levels do not exceed guidelines.
“I am concerned the ERCB has allowed the project to go ahead without dealing with residents’ current concerns,” said Wanda Laurin, a teacher who lives in Peace River. “The odour has got increasingly bad, but the ERCB is still giving out licenses like it is candy.“ To me, this is just unconscionable. I am sick about it. It seems like a dereliction of duty.”
Laurin and other residents were stunned to hear the project, which has been under review for three years, has been approved. Neither the ERCB nor Shell has posted notice of the approval on their websites. ERCB spokesperson Bob Curran said in an email that the agency doesn’t announce decisions on applications that have not gone to a public hearing.
Curran also said it is important to note that the thermal process Shell plans to use to extract and process bitumen is different from production facilities operated by other companies that have been causing odour issues in the area. Shell Canada spokesperson Steve Doolan said the company is pleased to receive approval but has not decided if it will proceed with the 35-year project, the cost of which is undisclosed. He said he understands residents’ concerns about the effects of energy developments in the area, but said Shell’s operations exceed regulatory requirements. The application filed for the project calls for it to be developed in two phases, with 810 thermal-injection wells drilled from 18 pads in the initial phase. The company has proposed to use technology that it says will capture emissions and regenerate them for other purposes. “We realize there are concerns in the area and we are certainly listening to them,” Doolan said. Energy Minister Ken Hughes said he has spoken with executives at companies operating in the area and is confident they are taking a fresh look at measures that can be taken to manage, reduce or eliminate odours. “There is an unusual characteristic to the emissions in that area,” said Hughes. He also said that Shell’s technology is different from other firms, which extract the bitumen and then heat it in above-ground storage tanks to increase its viscosity. That process has allowed some of the vapours and odours to escape. “I think Shell’s model is much more integrated and appropriate and consistent with the community’s viewpoint to development,” Hughes said.
At least nine families that lived near the processing facilities have moved away. Just this week, cattle rancher Carmen Langer abandoned the farm his family has operated north of Peace River since 1928.
Earlier this year, Langer presented the provincial government with an invoice for $3 million — along with a claim that his acreage had been contaminated by bitumen production. At one point, he grew canola and raised several hundred head of cattle, which he says he was forced to sell off.
“We are done,” said Langer, who is renting a house in Grimshaw. “We have lost everything. I was talking it over with my family this morning, and we may just have to walk away.
“The government keeps telling us we should sell our farm, but we couldn’t lie to people and sell this property after all of the hardship we have been through. The air smells just like when someone is using a paving machine.” [Emphasis added]
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