Gaseous emissions

Canadian Natural Resources in court over illegal release

A hydrogen sulphide (H2S) gas leak at the Horizon Oil Sands facility north of Fort McMurray has landed Calgary-based Canadian Natural Resources in court. The unreported leak allegedly occurred in May 2010 during the bitumen upgrading process.

The oil company is charged under the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act for releasing a substance into the environment that causes a significant adverse affect and for failing to report the accidental release. The maximum penalty for each charge is $500000.

Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development spokesman Trevor Gemmell was unable to give many details of the event for fear of jeopardizing the case.

“It was in the atmosphere… it was a release of hydrogen sulphide gas it happened during the upgrading process” says Gemmell. “Details of what that adverse affects are (sic) are part of the court case. They’ll be made public later on.”

Gemmell was unable to give information on how much H2S leaked the cause what the adverse effects were or how the event came to the government’s attention without being reported by the oil company.

These are not the first charges for damage to the environment that Canadian Natural Resources has faced. Since 2009 the company has been found guilty five times for separate incidents of contravening environment and water legislation and five times for breaking forestry laws. In total the penalties for those 10 contraventions are $84468.12 plus two warning letters.

The largest fine $22500 was applied in 2011 when Canadian Natural Resources was charged with failing to have pollution abatement equipment at its processing plant exceeding sulphur dioxide limits and again failing to report those levels.

Canadian Natural Resources describes itself as “one of the largest independent crude oil and natural gas producers in the world.” Despite a fire that shut down its Horizon Oil Sands upgrader from January to August 2011 the company earned $2.5 billion.

Marc Huot oilsands policy analyst for the Pembina Institute says the details of the current case are scarce making it difficult to speculate.

“In general air concentration exceedances or uncontrolled releases of H2S are very serious” says Huot. “At higher concentrations it can be lethal.

“Beyond the incident itself one of the big concerns in this situation is the company’s failure to report the release. When the responsibility of reporting the release of hazardous industrial pollution is left up to companies to self-report incidents where a company fails to report can significantly challenge public confidence in the system” he says.

Huot sees an increase in recent years in oil companies exceeding government limits adversely affecting air quality.

Among oil and gas companies Canadian Natural Resources is by no means the top violator of Alberta’s environmental laws.

In the same time period 104 oil and gas companies were charged with 209 contraventions. Suncor Synco Exploration (which no longer exists) and Prince Resources were the worst offenders with 23 14 and 12 charges laid against them respectively.

While most findings of guilt result in penalties averaging $5000 or warning letters high fines are not unheard of.

In March 2007 ConocoPhillips was fined $220000 for releasing a dangerous substance into the atmosphere. That ruling included creative sentencing which ordered ConocoPhillips to donate $200000 to the University of Saskatchewan “for research into the effects of H2S on livestock.”

“Incidents where companies are failing to report their own violations of environmental regulations really demonstrates that our current approach to environmental management of the oilsands is not adequate” says Huot.

Representatives for Canadian Natural Resources are scheduled to appear in court in July.