Farming families in northwestern Alberta say a dispute with a heavy-oil producer over emissions and odours is likely headed to court after the company refused this month to halt its operations.
The case relates to broader environmental concerns that have spurred an Alberta Energy Regulator inquiry into what are described as tar and solvent-like odours and emissions associated with heavy-crude operations across the Peace River region, which holds smaller but still significant bitumen reserves compared with the Athabasca and Cold Lake oil-sands regions.
Alberta Energy Minister Ken Hughes said he’s frustrated there are continued concerns, and noted it’s likely the regulator’s inquiry to be completed next spring will lead to beefed-up environmental regulations.
“My personal commitment to the people of that area was that we will get to the bottom of this and I will not rest until we do,” he said in an interview.
Lawyer Keith Wilson represents several families who live near the hamlet of Reno who have complained for more than two years of health effects, including severe headaches and dizziness, from what they say are gases from the Baytex Energy Corp. bitumen site. On Thursday, he said the company is refusing his request to stop its heavy-oil operations. Mr. Wilson said he made the request because five families that have moved away due to health concerns want to go back to their homes for Christmas.
He insists his clients are not against oil production if it’s done responsibly, but he’s preparing court documents needed to seek an injunction to halt operations at the Baytex site.
“It’s not normal oil sands, and it’s not conventional oil and gas. It’s somewhere in between,” Mr. Wilson said of this type of oil production.
“Hence the reason the regulator and the Minister of Energy have taken such extraordinary steps to call an inquiry,” he said. “My clients are happy about that. But they’re kind of saying, ‘Hello, what about us?’”
However, the company said it’s in compliance with Alberta’s conditions for its project approval, has worked to improve its environmental performance, and an air quality study commissioned in response to local concerns found no readings beyond provincial “objectives.”
“We want to make sure that our operations are operating in the most environmentally responsible manner for the benefit of the community, the province and our employees,” said Andrew Loosley, director of stakeholder relations for Baytex.
Mr. Loosley also said a company plan to reduce emissions has been stymied in the regulatory process due to landowner objections – an assertion Mr. Wilson said is “nonsense.”