Native Sun News: Something rotten in oil field regulations

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman. All content © Native Sun News.

The stink of rotten eggs from gas and oil operations is due to a toxic chemical called hydrogen sulfide, but a tri-national report released April 12 reveals a void in federal regulation of that health hazard, which is a growing concern in the booming oilfields underlying Native American trust land, as well as elsewhere in North America.

The report, entitled Taking Stock, is the 13th edition of the annual comparative study of national industrial pollution inventories prepared by the U.S., Canadian and Mexican governments through their Montreal-based North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC).

“Effective regional cooperation on environmental issues depends on comparable and complete data,” CEC Executive Director Evan Lloyd said in releasing Taking Stock.

However, the CEC’s announcement of the 91-page document notes, “Reporting-requirements for sectors and pollutants vary by country, revealing important gaps in the tracking of industrial pollution at a North American level.”

Taking Stock compiles the most recent annual data from the three pollutant release and transfer registers (PRTRs) in North America: Canada’s National Pollutant Release Inventory, Mexico’s Registro de Emisiones y Transferencia de Contaminantes (RETC), and the U.S. Toxics Release Inventory.

“The oil and gas extraction sector is exempt from reporting under the U.S. Toxics Release Inventory, as is hydrogen sulfide,” the announcement notes. In Canada, hydrogen sulfide (H2S) is the pollutant reported in the largest proportion by this same sector. The bulk of the chemical discharge is from underground injection disposal by the petroleum industry in the West Coast province of British Colombia and in the tar sands oil patch of Alberta Province just across the U.S.-Canadian international border from North Dakota.

Hydrogen sulfide is one of the most commonly occurring toxic air pollutants. The EPA lists it as an “extremely hazardous substance.” But mandatory reporting of the substance was suspended in 1994 after industry lobbying.

While hydrogen sulfide is regulated in the production phase of Canadian oil and gas activities, exploration activities are exempt from industrial reporting requirements in Canada. Mexico’s RETC does not require underground injection reporting, and the Mexican oil and gas sector did not report its hydrogen sulfide discharges.

“The CEC is dedicated to supporting ongoing collaboration by our three countries to improve this information,” Lloyd said.

First Nations, Native Americans question impact
The Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) noted that First Nations and American Indians suffer health risks and other inequities from exploitation of the fossil fuel resources underneath Native American lands.

Among the sources of concern are the tar-sands crude fields in Alberta, the gas and oil activity at the Three Forks and Bakken Shale formations in Montana and North Dakota, and the Niobrara play and Thunder Basin drilling in Wyoming.

“Indigenous peoples in Canada, the United States and throughout the Americas hold valuable land and water resources that have long been exploited by the provincial, state and federal governments and by corporations trying to meet the energy needs of an industrialized world,” IEN said in the organization’s Statement on Energy Policy and Its Impact to Indigenous Communities of North America.

“Indigenous peoples have disproportionately suffered impacts due to the production and use of energy resources, yet are among those who benefit least from these energy developments,” it said.

What stinks can sting
The stench of hydrogen sulfide emanates from sewers, feedlots, and geothermal sites, as well as petroleum production facilities. It is so commonplace, it may not bring to mind the fact that H2S can kill in high concentrations. What’s more, exposure to even low concentrations may cause irritation to the eyes, nose and throat, as well as breathing difficulty for asthmatics, according to the EPA.

Medical researchers comparing clean communities with the hydrogen-sulfide contaminated communities of Odessa, Texas, and Puna, Hawaii, discovered central nervous system symptoms--such as fatigue, restlessness, depression, memory loss, balance, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, lethargy, headache, and dizziness in 30 to 50 percent of subjects from polluted neighborhoods, in contrast to 10 to 25 percent in clean ones.

Similarly, they found respiratory symptoms; wheezing, shortness of breath, persistent cough, and bronchitis in 20 to 30 percent of those in contaminated locations, compared to about 5 percent in the other places. Anemia and easy bruising were twice as common for people residing in tainted zones.

Nearly one-third of the population is Native Hawaiian in the Puna community health service area studied for these findings published by the independent Health & Clean Air Newsletter.

Hydrogen sulfide is similar to cyanide in toxicity. It interferes with the enzyme cytochrome oxidase, which is necessary for cells to make use of oxygen. The main route of H2S absorption is through inhalation. It works by rapidly interfering with the brain's respiratory command center, sending nerve signals to the lungs, and poisoning the blood's oxygen carrying ability -- whether in acute, high-level, short-term or in long-term, low-level, chronic exposure situations.

Hydrogen sulfide is instantly deadly at or above 800 parts per million (ppm), as one late tar sands roughneck corroborated when he came too close in contact with the fumes in the Alberta patch, ending up a statistical anecdote in a University of California-Berkeley study entitled “Hydrogen Sulfide, Oil and Gas, and People’s Health.”

Its author Lana Skrtic concluded: “The literature on human health and hydrogen sulfide reveals serious and lasting physiological and neurological effects associated with acute exposure. The health effects of chronic exposure to lower levels of H2S, as documented in several studies, also include persistent physiological and neurological disturbances.

“Oil and gas facilities can be expected to accidentally and routinely emit hydrogen sulfide in concentrations that span a wide range and are associated with a variety of health effects,” Skrtic noted.

Great Plains has growing concerns
Some of the most notable discharges are wellheads and refineries producing and processing sour crude. Included in that category are the drill rigs in Alberta and the proposed Elk Point refinery in South Dakota, which is seeking permits to open. Most Bakken oil is sweeter, but the oilfield still pumps and flares sour.

These types of facilities are regularly situated near residences, where people can be routinely exposed to hydrogen sulfide, Skrtic said. “The levels of H2S range from relatively low concentrations of 2 parts per billion (ppb) recorded in Louisiana to the much higher concentrations observed in New Mexico and North Dakota,” she noted.

The North Dakota State Department of Health and Consolidated Laboratories monitored hydrogen sulfide emissions from oil and gas wells at several locations, from 1980 until 1992. Each location was near at least one oil or gas well.

At the Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge monitoring station, the highest one-hour average concentration recorded was 88 ppb. At Lone Butte, six miles north of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, one-hour average hydrogen sulfide concentrations frequently exceeded 200 ppb. Another recording site, in a valley with several wells within one mile from the monitor, showed concentrations as high as 250 ppb.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration workplace standard for H2S exposure is 10 ppm. Exposure to this concentration even for the seemingly short duration of 10 minutes can nevertheless result in eye and respiratory irritation, according to Skrtic’s sources.

In another study, entitled Chemicals in Natural Gas Operations, The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, a non-profit science collaborative, warned, “As natural gas production rapidly increases across the U.S., its associated pollution has reached the stage where it is contaminating essential life support systems - water, air, and soil - and causing harm to the health of humans, wildlife, domestic animals, and vegetation.”

Industry sources exploiting the Three Forks and Bakken shale formations in North Dakota and Montana calculate the formation underlying Native American trust land has five times more recoverable crude than federal geologists originally estimated.

The largest leaseholder in the area, Continental Resources, expects to add 120 wells to its 257 currently producing ones.

What gets reported gets regulated
Last year's Taking Stock, Chapter 4, “Releases and Transfers from the Petroleum Industry in North America,” revealed that the petroleum industry contributed about one-fourth of toxic pollutants reported in North America by all sectors in the most recently tallied year, which was then 2005. Just one pollutant, hydrogen sulfide, accounted for at least 90 percent of it.

The chapter noted the existence of “tens of thousands of unused and abandoned oil and gas wells that can pose hazards to humans and wildlife by allowing contaminants from the surface to enter ground water. Large areas of salty and contaminated drilling fluids and mud can be found nearby,” it said.

This year’s report, based on the data made available in 2010 for the 2006 industry reporting cycle, said that hydrogen sulfide constituted about 68 percent of the total pollutants reported for the injection well disposal method.

The information from both years was highly suggestive of the need for more comprehensive industry reporting, given that it did not even include the U.S. oil and gas sector or any U.S.-Mexican sector reporting of hydrogen sulfide, the top-reported pollutant in North America for underground injection.

“Oil and gas extraction facilities involved in gas processing in the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia contributed 99 percent of Canada's total releases to underground injection, reporting mainly hydrogen sulfide, along with some methanol and ammonia,” the latest report said.

“If undertaken safely, injection of metals and other waste from industrial activities into deep wells below fresh water aquifers can prevent the contaminants from leaking or migrating upward into the fresh water,” the CEC said. “Otherwise, private and municipal water wells can be contaminated. The practice of underground injection is not accepted in all jurisdictions,” it noted.

Will Rules Change?
In the United States, people have been trying to get stricter controls over hydrogen sulfide for more than 20 years. Among the leaders of the fight has been the Texas Sierra Club.

The EPA issued results of a three-year study in its Report to Congress on Hydrogen Sulfide Air Emissions Associated with the Extraction of Oil and Natural Gas in October 1993. Subsequently the executive branch and Congress removed most environmental oversight and regulation of natural gas production in the 2005 Federal Energy Appropriations Bill.

No new substances have been added to the TRI’s list for mandatory reporting since 2000, while 700 are approved for use annually. But now, in the current administration, the EPA is proposing several additions.

In the spring of 2010, EPA announced a public comment period for lifting the stay that suspended industry’s mandatory reporting of hydrogen sulfide to the TRI.

“Progress is being made by the governments to close these gaps—such as removing exemptions for sectors and adding substances subject to PRTR reporting,” the CEC said.

This year’s Taking Stock documented releases and transfers to air, land, and water of 5.7 billion kilograms of pollutants from facilities reporting to PRTR programs in Canada, Mexico and the United States.

The CEC was established by popular demand as a treaty condition for congressional acceptance of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

(Talli Nauman is co-director of Journalism to Raise Environmental Awareness. Contact her at talli.nauman@gmail.com)

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