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Regulator checks oilsands companies in northwest Alberta for odours

An oil pump jack outside of Fort St. John on January 17, 2013 in Fort St. John, North Peace River Riding.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Alberta's energy regulator is mounting a two-week, around-the-clock compliance check near Peace River to ensure oilsands companies are following new rules on odour emissions.

"We only have so many people in each field office across Alberta, so we've essentially saturated this area with staff to do a targeted sweep," Jeff Toering of the Alberta Energy Regulator said Monday.

The sweep involves two three-person teams moving from facility to facility in alternating 12-hour shifts for a week. Different teams replace them after the first week.

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The effort follows public hearings into complaints that gassy odours from Baytex Energy's facilities were driving some families from their homes.

Calgary-based Baytex uses an unusual method of heating bitumen in above-ground tanks to extract oil. Four other companies in the area use a similar process.

The regulator accepted most of the recommendations in a report on the public hearings. The suggestions included taking steps to eliminate gas venting, reduce flaring and conserve all produced gas in the area, where feasible, because it could cause health problems.

The regulator released a directive to that effect, which came into force Monday.

Baytex spokesman Andrew Loosely said the company has installed vapour recovery systems on all its equipment in one of the troublesome fields and is on schedule to install them in the other field by the regulatory deadline of Aug. 15.

"We applaud those efforts that the AER is undertaking," Loosely said. "They'll be out in force, holding our feet to the fire."

Gerald Palanca, who is part of the regulatory team, said inspectors will depend partly on their own sense of smell to determine if the regulations are being followed. But inspectors won't just follow their noses, he said.

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Methane detectors will measure gases associated with smelly emissions. Infrared cameras will be able to "see" releases.

"We're not only measuring the odours with the human nose," said Palanca.

Nor is a one-time blast to the nostrils enough to result in enforcement.

"We're after the very strong and offensive (odours)," said Palanca, who added several things will be considered in deciding whether enforcement is required.

"(Is) there ... evidence that the site in question is affecting people? There's also compliance history. There's the duration. All these factors weigh in as part of the compliance assurance program."

Toering said inspectors hope to use this sweep to improve future enforcement of the new odour regulations.

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"We're learning and we're going to tweak it as we need."

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