Strict regulation and enforcement necessary: Failure to prohibit emissions from Peace River oil sands project a disaster for downwind families

By Janet Keeping, click Leader 

The Labrecque family are not opposed to oil sands development.   According to their web site, they don’t see themselves as “tree huggers or environmental activists.”  Instead they describe themselves as Albertans who “believe in financial prosperity but not at any cost.”  Nevertheless it seems clear a huge cost has been imposed upon them by gases escaping from Baytex Corporation’s open bitumen storage tanks.  As the Edmonton Journal reported on January 22, “Residents abandoned their homes and watched their cattle get sick after Baytex began operating in the [Peace River] region two years ago.”  As also reported by the Journal, at the hearing now being held by the Alberta Energy Regulator “three farm families, some crying, told how their health problems grew so bad they finally left their homes in the Reno field 43 km south of Peace River.”

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The bitumen produced in this region is highly sulphurous and in order to be transported has to be heated.  When heated, noxious gases are given off which escape into the atmosphere, if not prevented from doing so.  Other companies operating in the area capture these gases.  But Baytex does not, and the Labrecques and others have had the great misfortune to live downwind of the company’s facilities.

The Labrecques want to return to their land and continue the lives they were forced to abandon.  But to date that’s been impossible.

Compared to the massive scale of oil sands development in the province, some might say this is a small story.  But it’s not, for there are important lessons of general import to be learned from it.

First, when it’s clear that one company’s operations are causing a problem and other companies are operating similar facilities in a better way, the provincial government should move immediately to require the renegade company to adhere to the higher standard.  The families who have been driven off their land should never have had to fight the provincial government and its agencies for a remedy.

Second, how did such operations get the go-ahead in the first place?  Did government regulators not know that heating the bitumen would result in such emissions?  If so, they were incompetent – they should never have approved these operations without fully understanding their impacts.  On the other hand, if they did know and still did nothing to ensure containment of emissions from the Baytex facility, they were negligent and perhaps even complicit in the poisoning of the landowners and their families.

Provincial oil and gas regulators are highly paid government officials who are under a legal duty to ensure that resources are developed safely.  If the individuals currently involved in Alberta’s regulatory agencies aren’t up to the challenge of doing their job well, they should be replaced with people who are.  But the problem isn’t only one of the individuals involved, it is also a function of the policies they apply.

Third, the Labrecques, and the many other Alberta land-owners who have suffered similar fates over the years, have had their health and well-being sacrificed on the altar of a policy approach which prefers to develop first and deal with consequences later, if ever.  This kind of recklessness is deeply wrong.  A thorough assessment and regulation of the Baytex oil sands project before it went into operation could have avoided both the suffering experienced by displaced residents and this latest black mark on the oil sands industry.

Self-regulation by industry doesn’t work – and never will – because even if the majority of companies operate responsibly there will always be outliers trying to get away with shoddy practices.  If the latter can’t come up to the appropriate standard, they should be shut down.

Is this really so hard to figure out?  I don’t think so.

 

This piece first appeared on the Troy Media web site: http://www.troymedia.com/2014/01/27/no-peace-for-peace-river-families-affected-by-emissions/