Saturday, June 20, 2009

Colossal Chore

Even government computers are strained by oilfield waste

This article appears in the May 2009 issue of Alberta Oil Magazine
by Peter McKenzie-Brown

The story of petroleum is a story of waste.

Consider the volumes involved: At perhaps 3.5 million barrels per day, Canada is the world’s seventh-largest oil producer, and at 16.9 billion cubic feet per day, the third-largest natural gas producer. Add in the gas liquids and related products and the sheer volume of fossil fuels that flow out of the Canadian soil starts to become astronomical.

And these numbers measure “spec” oil and gas – products that are clean enough for pipeline transport. Consumers rarely consider the huge amounts of waste created as the industry brings its output up to spec.

At every stage, considerable volumes of waste need to be treated. Consider the sources of upstream oilfield waste. Seismic surveys, wellsite construction and drilling produce wastes ranging from bush cuttings to rock chips to drilling and fraccing fluids. Production wastes include salty byproduct water, gunk in tailings ponds, contaminants like carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, and soil contaminated with sulfur. Once a plant needs to be decommissioned or a well shut in and abandoned, the producer creates more wastes that need to be carefully managed.

How much waste is involved? In Alberta, the Energy Resources Conservation Board regulates oilfield wastes. After a lengthy explanation of the limitations of the board’s computer system, Susan Halla, a regulatory manager, says, “We’ll be able to give you exact information in 2011.” In the meantime, she won’t even guess.

Even when detailed data are available, it will be incomplete. The reason is that most wastes from oil sands mining operations are not considered oilfield wastes. They are classified as “industrial wastes” and regulated by Alberta Environment rather than the ERCB.

Petroleum waste only begins in the “upstream,” exploration and production side of the industry. Once spec products flow through the pipeline into the “downstream,” refining and distribution processes produce wastes of their own. Like waste from oil sands mining, they are classified as “industrial wastes” and regulated by Alberta Environment.

By far, however, the largest volumes of physical waste occur in the distant downstream end of the petroleum products life cycle. Many items – plastics and chemicals, say – end up in landfills and dumps, unregulated incinerators, beaches and worse. Equally important, consumers burn natural gas and refined products to generate energy, thereby yielding carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and a variety of other unsavory incidentals. As emissions, however, they are technically not considered “wastes.”

The seriousness of upstream waste management did not become clear until the 1980s. An ERCB chairman of the era, the late Vern Millard, once explained, “We used to think Earth could absorb any amount of human waste without a problem. It has now become clear that it can’t.”

In an effort to obviate official regulation, the old Canadian Petroleum Association – the forerunner to today’s Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers – created an industry-wide voluntary code of waste management practices. Although regarded as a good stop-gap measure, the CPA guidelines didn’t last. Governments soon took over the job of regulation.

The ERCB’s role in waste regulation began in the mid-1980s, when the industry began to recognize that oil could be recovered from oily leftover materials in tank bottoms, separator sludge, flare pits and so on. Facilities known as reclaimers began to emerge in active oil- and gas-producing areas. At first, the board’s regulation of these facilities was aimed at making sure volumes of recovered oil were accounted for properly. Spurred by the federal government’s 1986 proclamation of dangerous goods transportation regulations, though, the board became heavily involved in oilfield waste management, regulation and inspection.

In 1990, Alberta began consolidating existing environmental acts and regulations into a comprehensive document that eventually became known as the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act. This and other environmental measures slice and dice provincial wastes in a number of ways. They can be classified as oilfield wastes or industrial wastes, and those wastes can be hazardous, dangerous or not-dangerous. Alberta Environment regulates hazardous and industrial wastes. The ERCB regulates oilfield wastes.

As waste regulation evolved, it became apparent that reclamation or recycling services could no longer be permitted to operate without regulation. After all, they were reclaiming wastes that were potentially dangerous, and sometimes hazardous. Hazardous oilfield wastes include hydrocarbons with low flashpoints; highly acidic or alkaline chemicals; and such volatile organic compounds as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes, which collectively go by the acronym BTEX.

After these products had been defined as hazardous, the board gave the owners of the province’s reclaimer operations a simple choice. Transform their facilities into high-standard waste management facilities or, in the words of CCS Corporation’s Greg Dickie, “clean them up and shut them down.” Most chose to convert to quality waste management operations.

With oilfield waste facilities not allowed to handle hazardous materials, the province badly needed a large disposal facility. Accordingly, Alberta developed a “special waste treatment center” northwest of Edmonton at Swan Hills to deal with hazardous oilfield wastes and also carcinogenic PCBs, which are primarily a waste product from electric transformers. Owned by the province but operated by the private sector, Swan Hills is primarily a specialized, high-temperature waste incinerator. The oilfield wastes that require incineration there include spent filters, oily rags and specialized high-BTU wastes.

As the 1990s wore on, regulators developed rules covering everything from the construction of landfills to deep well injection of liquid wastes. Those rules and the constant changes to them are available in a glut of guidebooks, information letters, directives and interim directives – all of which have been posted online by the agencies responsible.
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