Sour gas line explosion leaves bad taste for northern B.C. residents

| February 11, 2010
A sour gas plant in northeastern B.C. credit: Chris Arsenault

When a sour gas line explodes near a village and a saboteur isn't to blame, does anyone pay attention?

 

That's what dozens of Pouce Coupe residents in northeastern B.C. are wondering after regulators slammed EnCana, North America's largest natural gas company, for releasing 30,000 cubic meters of toxic sour gas into their community.

B.C.'s Oil and Gas Commission lambasted multiple failures with EnCana's safety protocols in a report released on Feb. 4.

"This is a very serious event," said commission spokesman Steve Simon. "This shouldn't have happened."

Residents find it perplexing that small explosions from sabotage at pipelines or storage sheds, releasing small amounts of gas or none at all, garnered widespread media coverage, while the OGC report on a far more serious incident received few column inches.

In its assessment of the November 22, 2009 leak, the OGC reported a resident first smelled gas at 2:30 a.m. The company's emergency shut-off valve failed.

The first call came into 911 at 8:36 a.m., after a resident drove through a cloud of poison gas. The community self-organized an evacuation with a flurry of phone calls. EnCana didn't tell residents about the danger until 10:16 a.m., several hours after the pipeline burst. The company didn't stop the leak until 10:45 a.m.

"Clearly, procedures were not followed," EnCana vice-president Mike McAllister told reporters at a Calgary press conference, where he issued an apology.

 

The incident raises troubling questions about EnCana's safety record, along with police and corporate responses to a sabotage campaign targeting six company installations since October 2008.

The RCMP calls sabotage attacks "eco-terrorism" threatening the safety of local communities. EnCana has offered a $1 million bounty, the largest in Canadian history (tied with rewards for the Air India bombing which killed 329 people) for whoever can bring down the saboteur. Yet, the November 22 leak likely released far more gas than all acts of sabotage combined.

"We are very willing to pay $1 million for information that helps stop these bombings and end these threats to the safety of the people in the Dawson Creek communities," said EnCana executive Mike Graham, on July 30, 2009 when the reward was announced.

Public safety concerns from EnCana seem like crocodile tears to Tim Ewert, a farmer living near Pouce Coupe and one of several families who had to self-evacuate during pipeline rupture.

"This leak released thousands of times more gas than what has been released by the bombings," said Ewert in a phone interview, adding that police and politicians are not speaking out against the incident, even though it was more dangerous than so-called acts of terrorism.

If public safety isn't the reason for a $1 million bounty and some 250 investigators from the Integrated National Security Enforcement Teams (INSET) sent into the bush to investigate sabotage, than what is motivating such extraordinary efforts?

Does eco-terrorism only include the diffuse actions of non-state actors or can the concept be structural?

The real reasons for the hullabaloo over the EnCana bombings lay with concern from portfolio investors rather than worries about the health of local residents and environment. This may sound harsh, even radical. But in light of recent events, it seems like the only reasonable conclusion.

EnCana's massive investments in northeastern B.C.'s gas industry are based on what some market analysts consider a safe business model.

In 2005, after protests from indigenous communities and environmentalists rocked the company's Ecuadorian operations, EnCana sold its risky overseas investments to a Chinese consortium. EnCana wanted to retrench its extraction in safe, stable North America. The bomber rained on their parade, causing instability.

Unconventional sour gas in B.C. is more expensive to access than similar products in other regions, including Ecuador. But with four-fifths of the world's hydrocarbons located in politically unstable jurisdictions, EnCana wanted a safe place to operate.

Here's the irony: in its pursuit of political stability, EnCana and other companies have exploited gas resources in such a manner as to create the very instability they tried so desperately to avoid. The rapid nature of gas extraction, coupled with generally lax regulatory enforcement, creates this instability.

The OGC and the Mediation and Arbitration Board (MAB), B.C.'s other regulator, have been unable to keep up with the pace of extraction. Between 1993 and 2003 B.C.'s gas industry, as measured by expenditures, grew by 271 per cent; staffing levels at the OGC meanwhile only increased 47 per cent. The regulators simply don't have the resources to regulate.

In 2007, Cheryl Vickers, incoming chairperson of the Mediation and Arbitration Board admitted the board was "a mess" and had "no credibility" in an interview with the Vancouver Sun. Many residents in northeastern B.C. say nothing has changed; the regulators still favor energy companies at their expense.

In one sense, this shouldn't be surprising; the oil and gas industry provides the B.C. government with its largest source of resource revenue, $4.09 billion in 2008 alone. It's hard to imagine any government anywhere setting limits on the goose laying its golden egg.

If the government were concerned with the long-term stability of the industry, it would impose tougher regulations. Counter-terrorism researchers generally recognize that police actions alone cannot stop attacks on pipelines. A security consultant with Carleton University's Normal Patterson School of International Affairs describes Canada's pipeline network as a "10,000-Mile Target."

Since force alone cannot stop sabotage against such diffuse targets, governments and industry need to deal better with root causes, such as health and environmental issues. Documents obtained by a Freedom of Information request from Integrated Threat Assessment Centre (ITAC) show that "pollution" and environmental concerns are motivating factors for those who oppose western Canada's oil industry.

"In many cases people feel that they haven't been given a proper say in how things develop," said University of Alberta eco-terrorism expert Paul Joosse. "They feel -- rightly -- that they are stakeholders who should have a say."

Clearly, better consultations with local communities and stricter environmental rules won't stop all sabotage. But in the long term, these measures represent a better use of resources than sending hundreds of cops into the bush.

Back in Pouce Coupe, residents are still feeling insecure. In a phone interview, Joosse likens sour gas wells to having "a pedophile in the neighborhood" as residents fear they could become dangerous at any time. This fear is palpable, in light of the recent OGC report.

"We can't prove objectively that sour gas is killing our animals or that hydraulic fracking [the process by which unconventional gas is extracted] has made our spring run dry," says farmer Tim Ewer. "But it seems like they [EnCana] don't know what they are doing."

Chris Arsenault the author of ‘Blowback: A Canadian History of Agent Orange and the War at Home' and a teaching assistant at the University of British Columbia researching the EnCana bombings.

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