CNRL faces environmental charges

By Trish Audette, May 14, 2012

EDMONTON — Alberta has laid three charges against a major oilsands company in connection to the alleged release of hydrogen sulphide gas, a byproduct of bitumen production.Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. is charged with releasing the gas in 2010 at the Horizons Oil Sands facility north of Fort McMurray and failing to report the incident.

“It’s something that we take seriously,” Alberta Environment spokesman Trevor Gemmell said Monday.

“Alberta has strict environmental laws. We believe the law was broken and that’s why charges were laid.”

Gemmell could not say how long the gas was released or whether there were complaints from anyone affected.

Hydrogen sulphide has a rotten egg smell. Its release can kill birds, aquatic life and animals, and prolonged exposure to high concentrations can cause sleepiness, blurred vision or respiratory failure in people, Alberta Environment says.

To some extent, hydrogen sulphide is always released when bitumen is produced. The charges laid Friday and announced Monday likely stem from exceeding agreed-on limits for the Horizons facility, about 70 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.

“This is a huge concern for social license in the oilsands,” said Marc Huot, an oilsands policy analyst for the Pembina Institute, an environmental think-tank.

“Things like failing to report these exceedances brings into question whether or not it’s possible for oilsands companies to operate in an environmentally responsible way.”

Huot noted the same company has faced similar charges before, and been penalized. According to the province, last September CNRL paid a $22,500 penalty for exceeding its sulphur dioxide emissions limits and failing to report immediately. In December 2010, the company paid $12,500 for exceeding emissions and not reporting its sulphur dioxide emissions.

“I think probably the biggest challenge here is that there’s just not adequate enforcement right now,” Huot said.

CNRL is now charged with one count of releasing hydrogen sulphide gas at a level, concentration, or rate that could cause significant adverse effect on May 28, 2010, and two counts failing to report the release between May 28 and June 3, 2010.

Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. is to appear in court in Fort McMurray on July 11. The company did not respond to interview requests.

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