Although Dan and Elaine Thomas are taken aback by the horizontal well that will be fracked directly beneath their Lochend retirement home, they are no newcomers to the oil and gas industry. Dan began his career as an engineer more than 30 years ago working with heavy oil in Alberta before heading abroad for 20 years of employment in South America, the North Sea, the Netherlands, and the Gulf of Mexico. Elaine spent eight years in the industry herself, lending her leadership development skills to an oil and gas company in downtown Calgary before joining Dan for three years in the Netherlands. Dan retired following a final stint of work with BP and Transocean a few weeks before the Deepwater Horizon – Macondo disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
Three years ago, the time came to build a retirement home on the land Dan and Elaine had purchased north of Cochrane, Alberta nearly 20 years earlier. Elaine recalls that they would often make weekend trips to the property to camp out with the kids in their trailer. “We just enjoyed the pristine beauty of the Rocky Mountains and the clean fresh air,” she says.
In the same week that they broke ground to make way for their new house, a horizontal well was drilled 300 metres from the edge of their property line. It was the first of its kind in the immediate neighbourhood. “There had been oil and gas wells here in the area in the past,” says Elaine, “but what we didn’t know was that this was a whole new breed of oil and gas wells. This was multistage horizontal hydraulic fracturing.” Soon after, Elaine and others in the area began experiencing various health impacts that coincided with the arrival of countless oil and gas rigs.
Dan compares the recent oil and gas development in the area to a “home invasion” and says that the failure to engage resident stakeholders has left many in the community wondering why they do not learn about new wells before “seeing survey stakes and the erection of the derrick.” The Thomases received no notification that the site next door would be developed and Dan learned afterward that the planned well site was strategically relocated specifically in order to evade requirements to notify neighbouring residents. Had they known about the well beforehand, the Thomases say they would not have built the house.
In the year and a half that followed, nearly 80 new wells were drilled and fracked in the area. During this period, most wells were not tied into gas conservation pipeline infrastructure and the effluent was instead burned off for months on end. Dan says there was one flare that was visible from a distance of three kilometres, and it led him to wonder what net volume of gas was being burned in the area. Based on the volumes indicated in flaring notices and shareholder press releases, and based on the size of the equipment on various sites, he made rough calculations that in the Lochend alone, the oil and gas industry was releasing approximately 30 to 40 million standard cubic feet of gas per day (0.8-1.1 million cubic metres/day). “Thirty million standard cubic feet of gas is enough to heat about 60,000 Calgary households on a typical winter day,” concludes Dan. This volume of gas was released on a daily basis for a period of 12 to 18 months, he says. The flaring of marketable gas continues on some well sites today, he adds.
Under provincial regulation, flaring at these rates is allowed for a maximum of 72 hours. However, if conservation is not found to be economic, continued flaring is permitted based on an evaluation of costs that is to be submitted to the regulator on an annual basis.
Dan laments the emission of greenhouse gases, the uncompensated release of provincially owned resources into the air, the needless waste of valuable natural gas, and especially the health impacts. “Words fail me,” he says.
The most direct impact of the flaring has been experienced by Dan’s wife. One hot, muggy day last fall, says Elaine, she could see billowing smoke coming off a large flame at the site of a well that was being completed and flared about one and a half kilometres from their house. She did not realize the significance of her observations in that particular moment, but after the fact, she noted that the emissions would have been carried toward her by the prevailing winds.
“Within the next few days, I was severely impacted. I had burning on my scalp, which actually lasted for three months. After a month of burning scalp, hair loss started. I had a burning throat. I have a chronic cough.”
“When spring break up comes and fracking stops, my cough goes away. As soon as it starts up, my cough is back. I have had a number of other health issues and incidents where I have had to leave our home for several days at a time.” Dan explains that the first residents to experience health problems were those who lived closest to the earliest developments. With more wells planned nearby to their west, the Thomases themselves will soon bear the brunt of the pollution.
Many others in the area— Dan included— have also experienced abnormal health problems. The Thomases report that some previously healthy Lochend residents have experienced frequent headaches, dizziness, rashes, muscle pain, and other symptoms. Elaine stresses that all of these symptoms have arisen in the short-term. “Who knows what the long-term effects are when you’ve been chronically exposed to these kinds of toxins that are in the air,” she adds.
It is possible that the health impacts of the flaring have been worse than might be expected because of the chemicals that are used in the fracking process. It is likely that the frack fluid components that are put down the well are also burned off in the flares, producing any number of toxins. Dan claims, “The fracked effluent from these wells is … potentially more dangerous than H2S, particularly given that many of the likely toxins are tasteless and odourless.”
He says another eight to twelve wells will soon be drilled in the area immediately surrounding their home. In the last year, perhaps partly as a result of landowner advocacy, many kilometres of new pipeline have been buried and the amount of flaring has decreased accordingly. The Thomases are glad for the improvement, but Dan asks, “Why was the infrastructure not there before?”
The pipelines are not a complete solution, however. During the completion phase of each well, flaring will continue to occur for a matter of days or weeks or longer until each well can be tied in, says Dan. While the approach would be more expensive, he explains that there is existing technology with the capacity to avoid flaring altogether. Given plans to drill dozens of new wells in the Lochend, it is likely that there will be active flares continuously throughout the year. The Thomases are making plans to leave the area as much as possible until oil and gas development near their home has subsided.
Because Dan and Elaine reside within 1.5 kilometres of various oil wells, they have on occasion received flaring notices, as per the regulations. Elaine is humoured when “smiling, handshaking” representatives distribute the notifications from door to door in what she suspects the companies feel is an act of neighbourliness. “I find that really interesting, because I have to leave the property and many aspects of life are put on hold,” she says in reference to the impacts of flaring on her health.
The flaring notifications do little to improve Elaine’s wellbeing, but she and her husband recognize that the companies are simply adhering to provincial regulations that require them to notify residents and nothing more.
“It’s an interesting example of regulatory policy that causes the industry to do this,” notes Dan. “It doesn’t go anywhere, so it’s fundamentally irrelevant.”
He says that this is just one example of “voluminous regulation” that is ineffective and without purpose. Dan’s experience in the industry both domestically and internationally has helped him understand the ongoing evolution of Alberta’s oil and gas sector. He mentions that the regulating body is now funded entirely by industry and he notes that it is clear in the mission statement of Canada’s main industrial association that profit comes before environmental and social prudence.
“We convince ourselves that we have the greatest legislative and regulatory environment in the world,” says Dan. “It’s not true. I’ve worked in developed countries — undeveloped countries — that in certain instances have better regulatory policy and possibly better enforcement than we have.”
Dan asserts that the way the oil and gas industry operates in Alberta would not be acceptable in many other parts of the world, including parts of the US that are further ahead in the development of unconventional regulation. Alberta has failed to learn from the multitude of mistakes incurred south of the border, he says. He suspects that industry may regret this failure when shareholders begin recognizing the risks that have already caused financial damage to several companies in the states. Instead, “Alberta is falling behind US legislation probably 8 to 10 years,” he says, with respect to hydraulic fracturing. He provides an example and explains that by 2015, flaring and venting will be banned even during completion stages on most well sites in the US.
“The Alberta regulator,” begins Dan, “has been trying to rewrite — trying to … basically write the regulation for unconventional gas development now for more than three years.” Meanwhile, he says, unconventional development has been ongoing for six or seven years in some areas of Alberta.
There is an industry mindset that less or no regulation of the unconventional industry will in some way lead to greater prosperity for us all. In our province, that mindset has been driven over the edge by some well-placed economists in the industry and government. That is a fallacy now and I believe the industry is quickly moving to a situation of higher costs, stakeholder revolts and, ultimately, unhappy shareholders. Somebody — government, the regulator, the industrial association or the industry — needs to wake up!
– Dan Thomas
This fall, despite the Thomases’ formal objections, a well pad was placed on the neighbour’s property. No information was provided to the couple, but Dan was able to read the signage and he discovered that four horizontal wellbores are being drilled from the pad, one of which will extend directly beneath the Thomases’ home and continue another 150 metres beyond. Dan’s conclusions were confirmed when he and Elaine were given a company map during a discussion of lease roads that also happened to include a sketch of the well next door.
“The industry in Alberta works on three principles,” says Dan. “Speed, stealth and secrecy.” The Thomases have been ensured that nothing can go wrong because the wells are more than two kilometres beneath the surface, but Dan points out that regardless of the depth, neither the industry nor the regulator has a worthy philosophy of risk management. There is no risk assessment, he says, no risk mitigation, and no contingency plan in the event that “the unthinkable happens.”
From Dan’s perspective, the risks posed by the well next door and beneath their home include air pollution, water contamination, and induced seismic events that could potentially cause structural damage to their home. The Thomases are almost certain that their health problems can be attributed to the flaring and on one occasion, Elaine and a neighbour both felt a tremor that coincided with a nearby fracking operation. To date, the Thomases’ well water has remained potable, but Dan contends that the contamination of the local aquifer is “almost inevitable.”
He explains that there are several mechanisms by which methane gas, deep saline fluids, or frack fluid chemicals could migrate into shallower strata. Human error, mechanical failure, or the nature of irregular foothills geology could independently or jointly lead to the contamination of drinking water aquifers, says Dan. If something were to go wrong, both Dan and Elaine are convinced that they would have little recourse, just as has been the case with the flaring over the last three years.
“Rule one in this province,” says Dan, “in terms of protection for the rural resident, is that … there is no protection.”
The Thomases have done their best to mitigate the risks on their own. In addition to installing mechanical venting and methane alarms in their basement where they have a 300 gallon cistern that could potentially accumulate gases and lead to an explosion, Dan has made several offers and requests to the operator and the regulator. One such request was that he and Elaine be notified of the date and time when fracking would occur. No response has been received from the operator, but the regulator has reviewed Dan’s submissions, which included a document detailing various concerns — each matched with possible mitigation techniques and viable contingency plans. The regulator responded in writing and informed the Thomases,
The AER [Alberta Energy Regulator] notes that the pad site is a considerable distance from your lands and your residence. … The AER is satisfied that you have not demonstrated that your lands, including your home and water well and your business, will suffer any direct and adverse impact from the wells.
Dan concedes that the pad site is a fair distance from their residence, but he is not convinced that the pad’s location is relevant to the fractures that will soon be induced directly beneath his home. The letter also notes that the wells do not contain H2S gas. Dan was aware of this beforehand and he says the fact remains irrelevant and did nothing to alleviate the concerns that were initially put forward.
From their kitchen window, the Thomases can see another drilling rig in the distance. The well site is approximately 300m from Westbrook School on Highway 22 and both Dan and Elaine are distressed by the fact that, during completion, flaring will occur within sight of the playground. Dan also asks whether there is an emergency response plan in the case of a well site accident and whether the school and its officials are equipped to properly manage such an emergency.
“I’ve seen some things burn down, blown up, and people hurt in other parts of the world,” says Dan, “but I’ve also seen how the potential risk of those things can be reduced significantly in ways that are mostly if not totally absent in the thinking in Alberta right now.”
While Dan is not sure that the water can be sufficiently protected from the impacts of fracking, he suggests that many other problems can be avoided. “There are solutions to this,” he says. “This can be done differently. This can be done safely and without significant negative impacts to the resident stakeholder group and the environment in general.” However, he concedes that the will to adopt and enforce best practices is lacking. For instance, he asks why the regulator has been reluctant to require the use of tracers in each oil and gas well. These could later be easily detected in the event of water contamination in order to identify the correct source and hold operators responsible for the impacts of their activities.
“I feel that there is no desire to do anything like that in this province,” he says.
However, there is good news, ensures Dan. “I honestly believe we’re at a tipping point where the current legislative and regulatory environment is probably costing the industry money now. It is very certainly in my opinion costing us our reputation globally.”
Dan says that even “industry insiders” are beginning to stand up and voice their concerns with respect to the regulator. He recognizes that some oil and gas executives want to employ better practices, but are limited by the demands of shareholders and the bottom line.
“This is a competitive environment,” says Dan. Any deviation from the standard could threaten a company’s competitive edge. Only a strong regulatory framework that defines the parameters of operation can ensure the application of best practices, he says.
“We’re all trapped in the insanity of an inappropriate, inadequate, out-of-date and dangerous regulatory environment,” he says. “It’s no good for anybody. It’s time to change.”
The Thomases recognize that as former professionals in the industry, they speak from a unique position.
“We’re not trying to stop oil and gas development in Alberta,” says Dan. “Obviously both Elaine and I worked in industry, had a good living from the oil and gas industry, and we don’t want to demonize anybody who happens to be in industry right now.” In general, he adds, the most important changes must occur at the policy level and at the leadership level.
Elaine provides some insight as to how current oil and gas workers and professionals might fail to recognize problems like those she and Dan have been experiencing.
“When you’re within an organization, you’re trying to fulfill the goals and strategies of the company,” she says. “You’re doing your best to be a credible employee and to further the company and you really don’t think about the implications of some of the actions, for example, for residents out in the country.”
“Now that I’m out of the oil and gas industry and I’m on the other side, you definitely see a totally different perspective.”
The Thomases’ experiences both within industry and in retirement have influenced their decision to speak publicly over the last three years and as they continue to advocate safe and responsible oil and gas development. “We made our living inside the oil industry,” says Dan, “so we have a little bit of a responsibility to give back.”
In addition to the time-consuming nature of these issues, Elaine says an enormous amount of stress has been placed on families and on the community. “I’ve seen it pitting neighbour against neighbour,” she says.
“We’re exposing ourselves right now to some more potential risks, and more potential conflict with the landowners who have the wells, and more potential criticism,” says Dan. It has been slow progress, but the Thomases retain the hope that things might be about to change and they continue to push forward despite any difficulties.
“The truth is there,” says Dan. “People are being hurt by this. The causes are pretty obvious and we’ve got to stand up and we’ve got to talk about this in as unemotional and as truthful and as ethical a fashion as we can and allow whatever negative consequences it might bear to just let them take care of themselves.”
Dan and Elaine are members of an advocacy group called Cochrane Area Under Siege – Coalition (CAUS-C). The group can be contacted at causccoa(at)gmail.com.
– Hans Asfeldt
October 30 2013