Three Ways to Improve Alberta’s Energy Regulator

The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) is Alberta’s one-stop regulatory body for the oil and gas industry.  When it was created in 2013 by the merging of the former Energy Resources Conservation Board and parts of Alberta Environment and Parks, the AER made bold claims about transparency, enforcement and becoming a “world-class” regulator.

Unfortunately, the AER has failed to live up to its promises.  The AER has shown over and over again that it is either unable or unwilling to enforce its own laws, directives and orders. The AER has become a toothless regulator.

As a public interest lawyer I see first-hand how the AER’s failures affect Albertans.

Take for example two of Ecojustice’s clients.  Tony and Lorraine Bruder operate a cattle ranch near Pincher Creek. A preliminary environmental site assessment conducted at an abandoned sour gas well site on their property showed that the site was potentially contaminated with drilling waste, salts, metals, and hydrocarbons, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons — all nasty things that you do not want on your property.

Image: Hemsol

In September 2015, as a first step towards cleaning up this mess, the AER ordered Nomad Exploration Ltd., the licensee of the well site, to complete a more detailed environmental study by the end of November 2015.

Nomad ignored that order.  Over the next few months, we repeatedly asked the AER what it was going to do about Nomad’s failure, but the AER took no action.

Finally, in May 2016, the AER ordered Nomad to prepare a plan by the end of June 2016 to complete the more detailed environmental study — that is, to prepare a plan to do the very thing the AER had already ordered Nomad to do six months earlier.

Most competent regulators escalate enforcement when an operator does not follow its orders — when you do not follow the rules, the consequences get more severe.  In this case, the AER de-escalated enforcement.  The penalty for not completing the detailed environmental study was just an order to “try again.”

This time, the AER said that Nomad must include in the plan a schedule to complete the detailed environmental study by the end of August 2016. After an extension of time and a couple of failed attempts, Nomad never did provide the AER with a schedule to complete the study. The AER then ordered Nomad to complete the study regardless by January 3, 2017, but then at Nomad’s request extended that date to February 15, 2017.

And guess what — Nomad again failed to meet that deadline.

When we recently asked the AER what they were going to do about this continued non-compliance by Nomad, the AER’s response was “the AER is continuing to gather and assess the relevant facts and information in order to determine the most appropriate response moving forward.”

In other words, 18 months after ordering Nomad to complete the detailed environmental study, the AER still does not have a plan on how to enforce that order.

The Bruders’ case is only one example of a much broader and systemic problem of lack of enforcement by the AER.

In July 2014, the AER announced that approximately 37,000 wells out of 80,000 inactive wells were not in compliance with the requirements for inactive wells. How does a regulator, that bills itself as “world class,” allow almost half of all inactive wells in the province to be out of compliance?

More recently, we have seen situations where the AER issued numerous warnings and orders to companies with no effect, with the end result that the only option was to transfer hundreds of wells to the Orphan Well Association, leaving financial responsibility for these sites to be borne by other industry members, the Canadian taxpayer, and eventually the Alberta public.  The AER has numerous enforcement tools at its disposal but it simply refuses to use these tools to ensure compliance.

Which leads me to my response to the question, “How do you solve a problem like the AER?”  In a recent letter to Shannon Phillips, the Alberta Minister of the Environment and Parks, and Margaret McCuaig-Boyd, the Minister of Energy, we made three recommendations.

First, before drilling a well, the operator should have to deposit sufficient funds with the AER to pay for the clean-up.  Then, when an operator refuses to carry out the clean-up work, or goes bankrupt, the AER would hold the necessary funds to complete the work.

Second, in 2014, the Responsible Energy Development Act stripped the Minister of Environment and Parks of her power to enforce environmental orders against energy companies and gave those powers to the AER.  Given that the AER appears unwilling to use those tools, we think that those powers should be given back to the Minister.

Third, we think that it is time to consider whether the AER should continue to exist.  If the AER is unwilling to enforce Alberta’s laws and its own directives and orders, perhaps the AER’s role should be transferred to the Departments of Energy and Environment and Parks.

In a recent publication, Jim Ellis, the President and CEO of the AER, said that regulators like the AER “hold a moral and ethical obligation to initiate bold and courageous action to improve the human condition.”

Perhaps before the AER embarks on the lofty goal of changing the world, they should get the simple stuff right — like enforcing the law.

About the Author

Working in Alberta, Barry Robinson sees the harm that oil and gas development is causing to rivers, air, farmland, diverse wildlife and rural communities. In 2009, he launched a private prosecution against Syncrude for the deaths of 1,600 ducks in one of the company’s tailings ponds. The case resulted in the largest environmental fine in Canadian history.

Barry began his legal career after working in Alberta’s forestry industry and as an environmental consultant. Wanting to leave a better world for his children and grandchildren, Barry was instrumental in setting up the first recycling programs in Calgary in the 1980s and uses solar energy to power his home. Barry has a special interest in ensuring that the oil and gas industry in Alberta is held to strict environmental standards.

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This article was originally published on the Ecojustice website at

Quebec announces $175 Million Clean-up Fund

The Government of Quebec recently announced it is setting aside $175 million over the next five years to fund the clean-up of vacant land.  Of that the total sum, $120 million will be spent on cleaning up contaminated lands owned by the province and the remaining $55 million will be used to subsidize the clean-up of properties owned by municipalities and, in some cases, private property owners.

The government sees the clean-up funds as an investment in development that will spur growth and create jobs.  Quebec’s Environment Minister, David Heurtal, stated in a news conference that the estimated value of the land that goes undeveloped because of contamination at $2 billion.

A similar program run in Quebec between 2007 and 2015 in which $60 million in provincial monies was used to clean-up 155 hectares (380 acres) of land.  It was estimated that the $60 million invested by the Province for clean-up the lands resulted in $1.6 billion in private investment.

The announcement won praise from both the Union of Quebec Municipalities and the President of the Chamber of Commerce representing east Montreal.  They both stated that the fund will bring economic opportunities and create jobs.

Concerns with Canada’s Arctic Oil-Spill Response Plans

The World Wildlife Fund  Canada (WWF-C), the Canadian arm of the international not-for-profit environmental activist organization, recently issued a report on Canada’s preparedness for cleaning up an oil spill in the Arctic.  In short, the WWF-C is of the view that remote Arctic communities face almost certain environmental catastrophe in the event of an oil spill from large shipping vessels.

The report chronicles research done by the WWF-C on the state and availability of oil-spill response equipment, training resources, and the communications infrastructure in the Arctic.  Report researchers found major issues in all areas related to spill response in Canada’s Arctic.

Gaps in oil spill response capacity are outlined in two parallel WWF-C assessments for the Beaufort region in the western Arctic and Nunavut in the east.  The reports found that:

  • Only a small number of coastal communities have access to the most basic oil-spill response equipment from the Canadian Coast Guard.
  • The communities that do have equipment say it is irregularly maintained, too few community members are trained to use it, and that some communities don’t have a key to access the storage containers.
  • Harsh weather conditions, periods of prolonged darkness and the presence of sea ice make most standard oil-spill response equipment ineffective.
  • Remote locations mean response times for large-scale cleanup and storage equipment can be more than 10 times longer than in waters south of 60 degrees’ latitude.
  • Lack of reliable communications infrastructure makes it difficult for communities to call for assistance, and for responders to communicate with those on land during an oil-spill response.

The report states that first responders in the Arctic are typically members of the community and that they lace effective and reliable equipment to contain and clean-up an oil spill.  Heavy fuel oil (HFO) is the standard marine fuel for cargo ships, tankers and large cruise ships.  It is also one of the world’s dirtiest, most polluting ship fuels, and the most difficult to clean up.

The report also contains are review on the consequences of an oil spill in remote communities.  Firstly, an oil spill would contaminate habitat for arctic wildlife and destroy fish habitat.  Secondly, it would likely contaminant a wider area as it would get trapped under sea ice and potentially travel hundreds of kilometres.

A third report prepared by WWF-C outlines a framework for creating oil spill response plans in Nunavut’s remote communities.  Recommendations from the reports include:

  • Phase out the use by ships of HFO, the most toxic and difficult to clean up of any marine fuel in the Arctic.
  • Align response time standards in the North with those south of 60 degrees latitude.
  • Develop community-based response plans.
  • Increase funding for training of community responders.
  • Consult with Inuit organizations on decisions that affect Arctic communities, and use both scientific and traditional knowledge to identify preferred shipping routes and areas to be avoided.

Though the chances of a large-scale oil spill in the Arctic are currently small, the consequences would be significant.  As sea ice melts and ship traffic increases, there is an opportunity now, while traffic is still relatively low, to put measures in place to respond to spills, or prevent them from happening in the first place. Because sparsely populated Arctic communities assume the risk of spills, they need both adequate equipment and response plans specifically tailored to the extreme Arctic environment.

Regulator warns North Dakota Pipeline Susceptible to Failure

As reported in the Bismark Times, documentation prepared by the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) shows that the regulator is of the view that the Belle Fourche Pipeline system is vulnerable to future spills due to the location of the pipeline in a landslide-prone area.

A spill in the pipeline back in December 2016 resulted in contamination of a tributary of the Little Missouri River.  The cause of the spill is under investigation, but Belle Fourche Pipeline Co. (the owner of the pipeline) points to the slumping of a hillside in the rugged Badlands terrain where the pipeline break occurred.

The PHMSA documentation on The Belle Fourche pipeline shows that the pipeline company may have experienced other spills in southwest North Dakota that went undetected due to inadequate leak detection monitoring and unstable terrain.

The agency issued a corrective action order to Belle Fourche Pipeline Co. following the spill.  It was estimated that 529,830 gallons contaminated about 5 miles of Ash Coulee Creek, which flows into the Little Missouri River.

Belle Fourche Pipeline Co. contested the corrective measures ordered by regulators and argued the spill was an “isolated, unpredictable event,” the document shows.

However, after holding a hearing, the PHMSA concluded the pipeline system is potentially hazardous to life, property or the environment unless additional steps are taken, according to a document made public this week.

The Office of Pipeline Safety, part of PHMSA, argued there is a risk of repeat failure on the pipeline system due to the topography of the area, soil conditions and slope stability issues.

Federal regulators say significant questions remain about the cause of the pipeline failure and they upheld most of the corrective action items, including requiring the company to excavate and analyze the failed section of pipe and submit a root cause failure analysis.

Regulators also ordered geotechnical evaluation of pipeline segments and a risk assessment of steep slope areas to determine if land movement could damage the pipeline.

Belle Fourche Pipeline Co. wrote in its response to the PHMSA that the company has cooperated with regulators and is “working diligently to address its impact on the environment.”

The segment of the pipeline that failed was shut down and can’t be restarted until the PHMSA allows it to restart.  The pipeline system was built in the 1980s, but it’s believed a portion of the line near the failure was replaced in 2013, according to PHMSA documents.

The North Dakota Department of Health has issued a notice to the pipeline company alleging violations of water quality standards and other state regulations.  The agency has not yet decided on a fine.

Webinar on Laser-Induced Fluorescence for Contaminated Sites

Chlorinated solvents, petroleum, creosote, and coal tars are common contaminants at thousands of sites all over the world.  These “source term” light non-aqueous phase liquid (LNAPL) and dense non-aqueous phase liquid (DNAPL) contaminants are potent sources of dissolved phase contamination, making proper characterization of their subsurface architecture a keystone of long term remediation success.  Unfortunately, these NAPL bodies typically distribute themselves in a highly heterogeneous fashion, leaving investigators with little alternative to gathering large data sets to understand their architecture, making traditional sampling and analysis costs prohibitively high.

Laser-induced fluorescence (LIF) is a cost-effective alternative to traditional sampling because it logs the NAPL continuously in the subsurface in real time.  Production rates of 250 to 450 feet/day are typical, making characterization of NAPL bodies possible in just a few days’ to a weeks’ time.  While LIF offers numerous benefits, it’s important that investigators understand LIF technology, what the LIF technology can and can’t tell them about their site, and how to avoid applying LIF to sites and conditions that can’t benefit from LIF.

The presenter, who is the lead developer of all LIF systems currently commercially available, will provide a brief summary of how LIF works, which LIF system to apply to which contaminant, what information LIF is capable of providing, along with its limitations.

Presented by Randy St. Germain, Dakota Technologies

Date: Thursday, May 4, 2017

Time: 9:00 AM Pacific Time (US and Canada)

More information about the webinar can be found at the here.

Saskatchewan Government to improve Pipeline Regulations

As reported in Canadian Underwriter, the Government of Saskatchewan recently announced steps to improve pipeline regulations after the completion of its investigation into last July’s Husky Energy pipeline oil spill.  Husky Energy was responsible for an oil spill of 250,000 litres into North Saskatchewan River.  Crews discovered the oil leak from a pipeline on July 20th after pressure anomalies were remoted measured in the pipeline.  A crew investigated the pressure anomalies and discovered the leak.  The spill caused communities downstream, including Battleford and Prince Albert to declare states emergency, and stop taking their drinking water from the river.

A Saskatchewan government investigation into the incident recently released its findings.  The government report concluded that the cause of the spill was mechanical cracking in a buckle in the pipeline.  The mechanical cracking was the result of many years of ground movement on the slope that the buckle rested.

One step the Saskatchewan government is taking to prevent future oil pipeline incidents is the introduction of a Bill (Pipelines Amendment Act) aimed at enhancing regulatory oversight of pipelines in the Province.  If passed, the Bill will address the current gaps in the provinces existing legal framework and provide the foundation for strengthening regulatory requirements for pipelines.

The province has also initiated compliance audits on the integrity management programs of companies that operate pipelines across major water crossings.  This work will build off the inspections conducted last year, but will include a review of corporate oversight of these programs;

The provincial government is reviewing the legacy designs of oil pipeline crossings over water to determine whether additional measures are needed to manage geotechnical risks.  One of the findings from the review of the Husky Energy incident was that the pipeline was built in 1997 based on the engineering standards of the time.

Online teaching tool for oil spill response

The University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA), in conjunction with the Defenders of Wildlife organization recently produced an online teaching tool for oil spill response in the Bering Strait.  The Bering Strait Response Teaching Tool (BSRTT) is now available online and will be allows the public to share information with various organizations and agencies about threats to arctic marine life, such as oil spills.

Allison Dunbar, a junior studying environmental engineering and biology at UAA, is project lead for the online teaching tool. She’s been working part time on the layers of the website for the last year in order to make the tool accessible to everyone, including those who live in the Bering Strait region.

“The local people will know the tides and the currents and will best be able to inform that response, and that is our ultimate goal,” Dunbar said.  “By utilizing and working with the local experts, impacts to marine mammals and to the communities will be less, and for us, (that’s) a common sense thing, but we want it to be written into the protocol for response agencies.”

The BSRTT was created to streamline the oil spill response process and cut response time.  Through the teaching tool and with the participation of the community, spill responders can draw upon persons in the public with knowledge of local currents and other factors that may impact spill movement and influence spill response.

Defenders of Wildlife is in charge of implementing the online teaching tool into local communities, which will involve her visiting and training residents throughout the region.  Part of the training will include discussions on spill response and spill response preparedness. 

The educational tool helps inform its users about response plans to oil spills and other potentially harmful situations that occur in the Bering Strait.  It is also a tool by which information is shared.  Through the training tool, the community gains a better understanding of the complexity of a spill response.

Anyone who uses the BSRTT website can share their knowledge with the Coast Guard or other organizations that also use the tool.  Community trainings on spill response and the teaching tool in the Bering Strait region are expected to begin this month.

Membrane Barrier Technology for Gas Contaminated Sites

Novia Ltd., a company specializing in membrane technology based in the United Kingdom, recently developed a new methane barrier membrane solution, Methane Pro, for use on gas contaminated sites.  The new membrane solution complements their current membrane range which includes air-and-vapour-control-layers (AVCL’s), vapour permeable membranes and specialty laminates.

Novia Methane Pro is designed for use as a loose-laid methane and CO₂ barrier.  Novia Methane Pro also acts as a radon gas barrier and damp proof membrane.

Novia Methane Pro is a high specification multi-layer virgin grade LDPE laminate incorporating scrim reinforcement and an aluminium foil core, and is designed for use as a loose-laid methane and CO₂ barrier.  Novia Methane Pro has passed the stringent sheet and joint tests to BS ISO 15105-1, and is fully BS 8485:2015 compliant.

Adrian Chisholm, Managing Director of Novia Ltd, said: With on-going issues finding suitable building land in the UK, there is a growing need for gas protection measures that provide solutions for contaminated sites. The introduction of the new BS 8485 standard in 2015 has driven forward product development, but there have been some difficulties within the industry in meeting the new membrane testing standards.  Novia is therefore very pleased to be able to provide a fully tested and compliant methane barrier solution.”


Experts successfully test a novel oil spill cleanup technology

As reported in Science Daily, researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) successfully tested a novel technology that can accelerate the combustion of crude oil floating on water.  By combusting spilled fuel, it is argued that the potential for long term environmental impacts are minimized.  The Flame Refluxer, developed by fire protection engineering researchers, could make it possible to burn off spilled oil quickly while producing relatively low levels of air pollutants.

The research from the technology was partially funded by the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE).  The recent tests were conducted at the United States Coast Guard’s (USCC) Joint Maritime Test Facility on Little Sand Island, located in Mobile Bay, Alabama.  The tests involved controlled burns of oil in a specially designed test tank on the island.

“In-situ burning has been used with great success, and it is our goal to support research that makes a good method even better,” said Karen Stone, oil spill response engineer at BSEE.  “This research and the results of these tests are particularly exciting.  We saw hotter fires increase the amount of oil that was consumed, what appears to be cleaner emissions, and a significant reduction in burn residue after the burn.  Initially we were hopeful that the technology could capture any remaining residue after the burn, but the fires burned so efficiently there was very little to collect.”

When oil is spilled in open water, burning it in place (called in-situ burning) can be an effective method for removing the oil before it can settle into the water column and cause ecological harm.  In fact, the current research project is based, in part, on the experience of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, during which more than 400 controlled burns removed between 220,000 and 310,000 barrels of oil from the ocean’s surface.


While that experience demonstrated the potential for burns to become an effective clean-up tool, they also made clear the limitations of current techniques.  For example, open-water oil fires can be difficult to sustain, they produce smoke, and they leave behind a tar-like residue that can harm marine life.  The Flame Refluxer is designed to overcome each of those issues.

According to Scott Fields of the USCG Research and Development Center “in-situ burning is already a very successful process, but we want to improve the air quality for our first responders who are engaged in oil spill cleanup.”

The Flame Refluxer consists of metal coils attached to a blanket made from copper wool sandwiched between two layers of copper mesh.  The blanket is designed to be placed on top of floating oil that has been collected with a boom towed by boats.  After the oil is ignited, the coils and blanket transmit heat from the flames to superheat the oil, which increases its burning rate and efficiency.  As a result, the oil burns more completely.  The more complete combustion produces fewer airborne emissions, and any solid residue is captured by the copper wool and kept out of the water column.

The technology was developed at WPI as an outgrowth of research funded by the U.S. Department of the Interior aimed at assessing the feasibility of using in-situ burns to clean up oil spills in remote locations in the Arctic, where harsh weather can make it difficult to quickly mobilize clean-up equipment and crews.  When laboratory tests identified the challenges of igniting and sustaining oil fires on ice and in cold water, researchers at WPI began exploring methods for making the oil easier to burn by transmitting heat from the flames to the oil.  The Flame Refluxer is the product of that exploration.

“The technology is so simple, it has no moving parts, it’s inexpensive, and it significantly enhances the burning rate of oil.  The tests we conducted at this unique facility will allow us to advance the technology closer to actual deployment” said Professor Rangwala, a fire protection engineer at WPI and lead researcher.

During test burns conducted with and without the Flame Refluxer, the researchers measured a number of parameters, including temperatures above the oil fire and the flow rate of oil delivered to the test apparatus, in order to determine how effectively the Flame Refluxer conveyed heat from the flames to the oil (a process known as heat flux) and how it changed the oil burning rate.  An air sampling station collected emissions produced by the fire and continuously measured several combustion byproducts: carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10).  The copper blanket was weighed before and after each test to see how effectively it trapped residue from the oil fires.

While it will take time to analyze the large volume of data collected during the test burns and report official results, Professor Rangwala said the research team made several observations that suggested that the Flame Refluxer technology performed as expected.  “Where we observed thick black smoke during a baseline test, where we burned crude oil without the blanket and coils, when the Refluxer was in use, the smoke was thinner and grey, even though more oil was being combusted.  In fact, our measurements show that between four and five times as much oil was burned per minute with the Flame Refluxer in place.  Finally, we observed that virtually no residue was left over after our burns with the Refluxer, an indication that it promotes more complete combustion of the oil.”

Cleantech one of the fastest growing industries in B.C.: KPMG

The cleantech industry was worth $1.8 bilion to British Columbia’s economy in 2016, and it is outpacing most other sectors in terms of growth and job creation, according to a recently releasedKPMG report.

The number of B.C. cleantech companies, which include those whose primary purposes are clean energy production, water treatment and energy or resource management, increased from 202 in 2010 to 273 last year.  The sector employed 8,560 people last year, and the average salary was $84,000 – up from $68,000 in 2009.

“The cleantech sector continues to both experience and drive growth in our province as well as provide an attractive investment opportunities for British Columbians,” said KPMG Canada’s Lorne Burns, who authored the report.

“The jobs it offers are desirable ones; average salaries are high and the technologies those jobs produce contribute to a cleaner and more sustainable world.”

Globally, the cleantech industry is worth $3 trillion, and this is growing, according to KPMG’s study. The United States is the biggest customer of B.C.’s cleantech sector, and this is expected to grow over the next three to five years. As well, sales to Europe, Asia and other countries are expected to increase to one-third of total cleantech revenue by 2021.+