Is Saskatchewan ignoring the potentially deadly gas from oil wells?
OXBOW, SASK.— The landscape of rolling hills, horse pastures and lush river valley that defines southeastern Saskatchewan has been transformed in recent years.
Today, bobbing, black steel pump jacks and flare stacks dot the landscape, burning off hydrogen sulphide and other dangerous gases that rise with the oil and trail off in ribbons of flame over green fields.
Saskatchewan’s oil boom has brought jobs for many. For others, it has brought fear, injury and one death.
Read more from the investigation:
- Saskatchewan Energy Minister responds to investigation about potentially deadly gas from oil wells
- Saskatchewan government dodges questions about potentially dangerous oil industry failures
The number of “fracked” wells in the Bakken shale oilfield alone increased from 75 in 2004 to nearly 3,000 in 2013, according to a 2016 paper by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. The promise of prosperity, similar to its southern neighbour North Dakota’s Bakken boom, has been embraced by a province struggling to diversify its economy.
A national investigation by Global News, the Toronto Star, the National Observer and journalism schools at Regina, Concordia, Ryerson and UBC has uncovered failures by industry and government to respond to — and warn the public about — the serious and sometimes deadly threat of H2S gas wafting across Saskatchewan.
Documents obtained through freedom-of-information requests and from whistleblowers — internal correspondence, meeting minutes, presentations and inspection reports — disclose findings of failures in performance by oil and gas companies, including serious infractions, failed safety audits, daily H2S readings beyond provincial air quality standards and a death in 2014.
Yet regulatory standards remain largely unchanged and H2S incidents and risks remain hidden from the public.
H2S can be an insidious killer.
Heavier than air, it tends to settle in ravines and valleys.
Just above 100 parts per million, H2S causes olfactory paralysis, leaving a victim unable to detect the rotten-egg smell. Continued exposure at that level may cause death within 48 hours.
A person exposed to a highly concentrated plume of the gas — at 1,000 parts per million — may die rapidly from respiratory paralysis, or over the course of days, from an inflammatory reaction in the lungs.
Victims effectively suffocate.
Inside government and industry offices, documents obtained by the investigation indicate the seriousness of H2S issues that led to years of meetings, audits and proposed regulatory reforms.
On April 7, 2014, government and industry officials deliberated about releasing data that showed H2S “hotspots” across southeastern Saskatchewan.
“Government may be accused of hiding information,” the notes read. “Public will want to know: 1. What are the areas? 2. How is it managed? 3. How is the government making sure it’s managed?” one unnamed official told the meeting. “Are we creating a risk by not releasing this data immediately?”
Despite acknowledging “significant” public health risks from H2S, at least some officials present expressed concern about “sensitivity in this data (because) there are residents living in these areas.”
No release followed.
Three weeks later, government-proposed fines for emission breaches — up to $1 million in penalties — were rejected by two major industry groups. In a letter to the ministry dated April 29, 2014, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) and Explorers and Producers Association of Canada (EPAC) called the proposed penalties “unsuitable.”
A former ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his current job in the industry, says “almost every amendment was being rejected.”
EPAC officials declined comment.
Terry Abel, CAPP’s spokesperson, said the letter was intended to explain that, “in some cases, fines aren’t appropriate at all … If there’s an unsafe operation, it should be shut down. It shouldn’t be operating. That’s the best way to ensure the public safety is protected.”
The proposed fines were dropped.
The next month, Michael Bunz, a 38-year-old salesman supplying chemicals to oil and gas facilities, lay in a shack dead after being exposed to H2S.
The official incident report filed with the Ministry of the Economy, which regulates Saskatchewan’s oilfields, makes no mention of Bunz’s death.
These regulators “are really thinking about the economic health of the province,” says Emily Eaton, a professor at the University of Regina who has studied the relationship between the oil industry and the government. Eaton is a member of the Corporate Mapping Project.
A shift in 2012 — from the Ministry of Energy and Resources to a new Ministry of the Economy tasked with regulating natural resource extraction and promoting economic development — changed the ministry’s role from watchdog to partner, she says.
“They’re thinking about returns on investment … The industry should really be regulated by those that have the interests of the environment first.”
Ministry field staff raised this concern at a meeting on July 1, 2015, between government and industry.
“The role of the regulator needs to be adjusted,” the meeting’s minutes read. “The regulators are acting as consultants in some situations. The role of the regulator is to enforce the rules and if the rules are clear and if enforcement is consistent and clear then, ‘cultural’ changes can be made.”
In its statement, the ministry rejects criticisms of conflict of interest or lax enforcement.
“Within the Ministry of the Economy, the petroleum and natural gas division carries out industry regulation,” wrote the department’s spokeswoman, Deb Young. “It is not involved in investment attraction, royalty and tax assessment and land sales. It is solely focused on well, facility and pipeline regulation.”
That regulation has not included fines or prosecutions.
The ministry has not issued a single fine against any industry company “for well over a decade,” Doug MacKnight, assistant deputy minister responsible for petroleum and natural gas, said in an interview.
“Generally, we don’t have to resort to that,” he said. “It’s usually just a notice to the operator to bring themselves into compliance.”
Prosecutions have also not been part of the ministry’s enforcement practices because non-compliance was dealt with “through other enforcement actions,” reads the ministry’s statement.
Other enforcement actions include increased inspections and staff, high-tech equipment for detecting emissions and a $69-million inspection reporting database (which can’t be accessed by the public).
Still, complaints of illness from residents and workers continue.
“I will sometimes get faint, like I will fall over and I have to find a seat quickly,” says Lori Erhardt, a United Church minister and musician living near Oxbow who believes her chronic illness is related to emissions.
“I have had a variety of diagnoses, most of them end with “i-t-i-s,” which means inflammation … If something gets inflamed, if it’s blood vesicles, you feel it through your body.”
Among the five years’ worth of documents obtained by this investigation is an April 2012 PowerPoint presentation to CAPP members by the director of the province’s petroleum and natural gas division. It includes a map of southeastern Saskatchewan showing a bloom of red and orange circles, labelled “critical sour gas locations.”
Sources say ministry staff pushed to make the data public but senior government officials said “there’s no goddamn way that is going to be released,” according to the former ministry source.
“There’s an institutional reluctance to make this information public,” he said. “The public should be able to see all the information that legislators have identified as public information such as sour gas and inspection reports.”
The ministry statement says the map was never approved for release because some data was out of date, not comprehensive and “could provide the public and industry with a false understanding of risk associated with a particular well or facility.”
In 2012, the ministry inspected 11 oil and gas facilities. All failed “with serious infractions,” including releasing H2S at lethal levels “that may be exceeding 150,000 (parts per million),” Brad Herald, CAPP’s Saskatchewan operations manager, wrote to the board of governors in December 2012.
Those levels are 150 times the amount that could cause instant death.
Among the causes: “It is believed that inadequate training on the installation and operation of equipment is … contributing to the air quality issues.”
CAPP’s Abel said in an interview the “unsafe” facilities responsible for those breaches should not have been operating.
“They should have been shut down,” he said. “When you follow the rules, processing and production of sour gas is absolutely safe. If you don’t follow the rules, it can pose a health risk. So ultimately, those operators at those facilities were responsible.”
Neither CAPP nor its industry partners made the health risks public. And no ministry fines or prosecutions followed.
Internally, CAPP quickly mobilized to develop a public relations and damage control plan:
“There are growing public concerns regarding the air quality issues in southeast Saskatchewan,” Herald wrote, noting a petition and a Facebook page.
“The Ministry fields one to two public complaints concerning odours per week and the issue is garnering increasing political attention . . . This has the potential to become a broader industry reputation/social license concern and warrants immediate attention by operators in the region . . . Communications is preparing key messages in the event that there is media profile.”
CAPP received a warning the next month after consulting a scientist with expertise on managing toxic substances, internal emails show. The scientist expressed disappointment noting that H2S failures were “so easy to avoid.”
The scientist urged the industry lobby group to develop and implement a new code of practice to control dangerous emissions and get ahead of the problem by publicly denouncing unacceptable practices. The scientist also recommended that the industry group pressure the province to step up inspections.
The ministry, in meetings with industry, proposed similar reforms.
In a letter sent in March 2013 then-energy minister Tim McMillan — now president and CEO of CAPP — warned companies to meet “compliance obligations” or face “escalated enforcement, penalty and/or prosecution.”
Ministry and industry met four times between 2012 and 2014 to plot strategy, including emergency planning zones, a public communications document, a code of practice and a licensing regime for high-risk, single-well batteries.
Those plans were never adopted, a ministry statement confirms.
“Instead, the Ministry chose to take a risk-based approach to managing the sour gas issue that included increased field inspections and improved data collection.” Eighteen wells that had been venting sour gas were ordered to be “shut-in” in 2012/2013.
From 2013 to the summer of 2014, the ministry began implementing “an aggressive inspection and enforcement schedule to reduce sour gas emission” that included suspension orders against 30 facilities owing to “H2S management issues,” the statement reads.
During that effort, H2S would claim its most high-profile victim in Saskatchewan.
Michael Bunz, a salesman for Nalco Champion, died on May 22, 2014, while taking samples in a shed located in a provincial park between Carlyle and Kipling. A valve on the tank broke and oil, water and H2S spewed into his face.
An incident report submitted by the tank’s owner, Harvest Operations Corp., states simply: “Spill occurred as a result of a failed valve.”
Nowhere does it mention Bunz’s death.
Instead, his death is marked by a gravestone in a small cemetery near Wawota, where the father of two young daughters lived a few doors away from his parents, Dianne and Allan.
The black, polished stone, with an image of Bunz wearing his Saskatchewan Roughriders jersey and hat, calls him “Bunzy” and reads: “In loving memory of Emma and Olivia’s Daddy.”
“He didn’t really talk about those dangers,” Dianne says.
“We knew what it’s like to work in the oil industry. My husband did for 20 years. We knew about H2S but I wasn’t aware that he was going on site and doing the testing.”
The summer before he died, Allan drove his son to the Nalco office to quit. Michael’s brother-in-law, who had worked there, had left and “things had been pretty tough,” Michael said, marked by long days and heavy workload.
“He was going to hand his company truck in, and his boss was there … he talked (Michael) out of it,” Allan says. “This company wanted him because he never ever phoned in sick or anything. He’d just go to work. And they offered him more money, so he stayed.”
Nalco Champion is facing three charges under the province’s occupational health and safety legislation for failing to provide Bunz with a respirator and to ensure he entered a dangerous situation with a second worker. A conviction would result in a fine.
The family says they were told by Nalco that the concentration of H2S in the fluids was estimated at 40,000 parts per million, more than enough to bring near-instant death.
The company sent reporters a written statement, declining further comment.
“We remain deeply saddened by the loss of our colleague, Michael Bunz. The safety of our associates, customers and communities is vitally important, and we remain committed to our robust safety policies, protocols and training programs, which include those related to hydrogen sulfide,” it reads.
Allan, who spent most of his working life in the oil industry, says he learned more about H2S protection when he worked on a pig farm.
“Every person had to wear an H2S monitor. And I’m talking about the pig industry,” he says. “To me, they were protecting us … more at this simple small hog operation in Saskatchewan than the oil industry ever did the entire time I was working out there.”
The couple reviewed the records documenting years of discussions between government and industry about public health risks and failed audits that were never made public. The couple called it “devastating.”
“I go to work every day and I drive down the highway and I talk to my son sitting beside me,” says Allan. “I say to him “tough day there, son” and I tell him how I feel . . . I feel him sitting there beside me.”
How often H2S incidents happen or happened in Saskatchewan remains a mystery.
Officially, ministry officials count one death and five “documented incidents where a member of the public was exposed to unsafe levels of sour gas near a well or facility site.”
None of them triggered a public statement by the government.
“There was no need for public notification since the incident was quickly dealt with at the site,” reads the ministry statement.
But after dozens of interviews it is clear that H2S incidents involving residents are more common but go unreported or are not recorded properly. This is also true for workers in the oilfield.
Only months after Bunz died, Trina Hansen, an oilfield worker and part-time voice actress, was clearing a pipeline near Carlyle, Sask.
“I could have died,” she says. “It’s almost like you could feel like a heavy air hit your face. It’s a really weird feeling. Your first reaction is to inhale. When it hits your face, you breathe it in. It’s the weirdest thing. You don’t think to hold your breath. It happens so fast. I stumbled backwards. I was so shocked.”
Disoriented, Hansen got back in her truck and drove a couple of kilometres until she noticed she was losing her peripheral vision.
“There were white sparkles, iridescent, swirly, super-shiny and bright. I jumped out and started feeling nauseous and couldn’t breathe very well. I was trying to catch my breath and dry heaving. My head started pounding.”
Hansen, suffering debilitating headaches, nausea and sickness, lost her voice for two weeks.
“This happened three years ago and I still have a hard time catching my breath if I talk too fast. I’m very short of breath. I’ve never in my life felt like that. It was horrible.”
Her voice has changed for good — it is far deeper and lower than before.
“I do a cartoon on APTN network and they said my voice totally changed. It changed two octaves pretty much. It used to be high and now it cuts out.”
Hansen never reported the incident, fearing she would lose her job.
“Nobody wants to say anything. We know it’s bad and dangerous. But no one wants to raise a fuss. And being a woman and trying to prove yourself out there, I never claimed WCB (Workers Compensation Board). The economy went down and I have to pay off debt with my trucking money.”
Four months after Bunz’s death, a secret ministry report listed 161 facilities “that may be in violation of (the ministry’s) sour gas emission control.”
The catch: “time and resources required to investigate and verify violations would take all available field officers over a year.”
In 2014, inspections of 60 suspicious wells in 2014 turned up 36 — more than half — that were leaking so badly they had to be shut down.
Another audit found 11 out of 12 facilities failed inspection “due to H2S venting” and found 29 locations that are too close to facilities with high levels of H2S concentrations. Of the 1,352 active sour gas facilities, only 421 — 31 per cent — had “proper emission control systems.”
“Almost every site had improper gas measurement,” the report reads. “Discovered major contamination at two facilities as a result of spill which were not reported” to the ministry.
The ministry believes that the H2S issue is under control, saying air quality standards are being met and that inspections confirm that companies’ sour gas management practices have improved. Today 27 full-time inspectors are responsible for the province’s 126,000 wells and its estimated 118,000 kilometres of pipelines and flowlines, operating with a budget of $3.9 million.
In 2016-17, ministry staff inspected 18,340 wells, facilities and pipelines.
Last month, a team of researchers from Harvard and Northeastern Universities collected data in collaboration with this investigation using the same instruments employed by ministry inspectors to detect emissions invisible to the naked eye.
“In my experience measuring oil and gas activities in Texas, what struck me was that about a third of the sites we looked at had what we believed to be fugitive emissions and the high density of pump jacks,” says Lourdes Vera, a doctoral student in environmental sociology at Northeastern University.
Drew Michanowicz, a post-doctoral researcher at Harvard University’s School of Public Health who led the survey in Saskatchewan, said about one in five of the facilities they visited showed black smoke rising from the flaring stacks of production facilities.
“If there is black smoke, there is particulate matter that if inhaled is certainly associated with human health effects,” he said. “If sources of these air pollutants are constantly impacting individuals where they live, work and play, there is the worry that they are experiencing health effects.”
In interviews with landowners and records in the government database, this investigation has found recent H2S accidents, including three people who say they were sickened by H2S clouds near their homes in the past year. One said they required hospitalization after a near-fatal incident.
Data and documentation journalist:
Michael Wrobel, Concordia University
Jennifer Ackerman, University of Regina
Madina Azizi, University of Regina
Janelle Blakley, University of Regina
Cory Coleman, University of Regina
Mike De Souza, The National Observer
Josh Diaz, University of Regina
Brenna Engel, University of Regina
Matthew Gilmour, Concordia University
Céline Grimard, University of Regina
Jared Gottselig, University of Regina
Lauren Kaljur ,University of British Columbia
Rebbeca Marroquin, University of Regina
Matthew Parizot, Concordia University
Katie Doke Sawatzky, University of Regina
Michaela Solomon, University of Regina
Kyrsten Stringer, University of Regina
Caitlin Taylor, University of Regina
Steph Wechsler, Ryerson University
P.W. Elliott, University of Regina
Trevor Grant, University of Regina
Patti Sonntag, Michener Fellow, based at Concordia University
Concordia University, Department of Journalism
Ryerson University, School of Journalism
University of British Columbia, Graduate School of Journalism
University of Regina, School of Journalism
The Michener Awards Foundation
The Corporate Mapping Project is jointly led by the University of Victoria, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and the Parkland Institute. This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.