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Fueled by Fossil Donations, Saskatchewan’s Wall Government Hid Sour Gas Threats

Saskatchewan’s pro-fossil government concealed rising concern among its own officials and industry experts over leaks of deadly hydrogen sulphide (H2S) from gas wells and collection facilities in the province, and refused to initiate remedial programs, according to a months-long investigation by a consortium of Canadian media outlets.

Hydrogen sulphide—so-called sour gas—“can be an insidious killer,” writes the National Observer, one of the outlets. “Invisible to the human eye, at high concentrations it can bring death within seconds as its victims suffer from respiratory paralysis. To date, it has claimed the life of one unsuspecting oilpatch worker, a father of two, while debilitating several others who were fortunate enough to survive an encounter.”

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Yet despite that 2014 death and other incidents, the Saskatchewan Party government of Premier Brad Wall declined expert advice to take stronger measures to prevent the toxic gas from being released. Wall, who has announced he will retire from office when his party chooses a new leader, has equivocated on whether he accepts the science on climate change, and has defied the federal government’s planned introduction of a floor price for carbon emissions. His party has received millions of dollars in contributions from oil and gas interests that would be illegal under political financing laws in neighbouring Alberta.

The investigative journalism was conducted “over the course of a year by National Observer, the Toronto Star, Global News, and journalism schools at the universities of Concordia, Regina, Ryerson, and British Columbia, with support from The Michener Awards Foundation and the Corporate Mapping Project,” the Observer disclosed.

It revealed “deep concern within the oilpatch and Saskatchewan government about the potentially deadly sour gas wafting over the province’s rural communities,” but little action in response.

“Internal meeting minutes obtained by the investigation detail repeated and ongoing findings of a ‘big failure in performance’ by oil and gas companies in Saskatchewan, including ‘serious infractions,’ a string of failed safety audits, and H2S readings that exceeded air quality standards ‘on a daily basis,’” the outlet observes. “But no fines or prosecutions followed.”

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) evidently viewed the danger as dire enough that in 2012, it “consulted a scientist on how to address the burgeoning H2S issue. In January 2013, the scientist pressed CAPP executives to take ‘urgent’ action.”

However, “CAPP didn’t create a new code of practice” at the time, “and there is no evidence that it followed the scientist’s advice. In addition, there is no public record showing that it took steps to warn communities of any nearby danger at all.”

Saskatchewan officials did work out a proposed “action plan” over at least four meetings with industry groups between October 2012 and January 2014. It would have included better communication of sour gas risk to the public, and a licencing regime for high-risk wells. But the province’s Ministry of the Economy confirmed that those plans were never adopted.

Moreover, after internal discussion, Wall’s government refused to make public a map it maintained that revealed where sour gas leaks created potentially toxic hot spots, the investigation revealed.