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Certified Health & Safety Consultant Canadian Red Cross Canadian Society of Safety Engineering

History of Well Blow-Outs in Alberta and H2S Alive

The history of well-blow-outs in Alberta is interesting to read. The industry’s response to these tragedies is the reason for the current H2S Alive Edition 7 training course.

In the 1920s, it was a common practice to drill oil wells to burn unwanted gas in flare pits. Turner Valley is SW of  Calgary and was nicknamed Hells Half Acre. This deposit contained sour gas, and H2S was emitted after separating the liquid hydrocarbons into the atmosphere through tall smoke stacks. The area smelled like rotten eggs.

This disgusting smell was also toxic, even in trace quantities… but it smelled like money to the oil barons of the time.

Canada’s first blowout was in Ontario in 1862, which showed that big discoveries of oil and gas often resulted in terrible accidents and public exposure.

The Alberta petroleum industry is marked by blowouts that leaked oil and gas through derricks during the drilling process as far back as 1948. Forty kilometres southwest of downtown Edmonton, a geyser of oil soared, propelling high-pressure columns of petroleum crude oil. This tossed pieces of machinery into the air and leaked pollutants into the atmosphere, blanketing farmers’ property.

The well that Atlantic Oil Company owned spilled more than a million barrels of oil.  Workers were hired to snuff out fires under boilers that drove the drilling rigs’ steam-powered engines.  It took 6 months to plug the well. The blowout vented over 10 billion cubic feet of gas into the atmosphere. The blowout provided a lesson in the importance of emergency planning when the crude caught fire and sent enormous columns of smoke into Southern Edmonton.

Since this time, blowout preventers and safety equipment have been tested rigorously during drilling operations.

The public was very upset with the oil companies’ choice of production over their safety concerns. This caused corporate shares to plummet and drilling bans. There was a rush to create new safety protocols to match the frenzy of drilling in Alberta. The Petroleum and Natural Gas Conservation Board began in late 1938 to minimize excessive flaring. The name changed over time to ERCB, EUB, and then to the current AER—Alberta Energy Regulators.

Our current stricter sour gas drilling regulations resulted from the infamous Lodgepole incident in 1982 near Drayton Valley. This was the location of the worst sour gas blowout in Canada. This blowout killed 3 well control specialists and burned out of control for two months. A comprehensive survey and review of sour gas drilling procedures was initiated. As a result, a national suite of standards for emergency response created new regulations and improvements.

Atlantic Number 3 produced another blowout in Alberta, which caused a three-day fire and energized the push to regulate drilling procedures. At that time, stricter industry operating guidelines were passed. Since 2000, the Board has closed 1264 facilities that didn’t meet proper regulatory requirements.

When gas or oil loaded with Hydrogen Sulphide Gas is onsite while drilling, the regulations are strict. Companies must stop the drilling process to do safety checks prior to drilling into sour zones on top of oil formations, which likely contain deadly H2S. A field inspector might conduct a thorough rig inspection and see that a test of the shutdown procedures in case of emergency is undertaken.

Not only do the employees need to be able to handle a blowout properly, but they are also required to obtain a series of safety tickets, such as H2S Alive. There are numerous penalties for lacking proper credentials, such as shutting down a rig.

Allstar Enviro Safety runs weekly classes on hydrogen sulphide gas safety for workers. This 6 – 8-hour program was designed by ENFORM to create a consistent training format for people in the petroleum and related industries who could be exposed to H2S gas.

 This course is the result of safety standards that resulted from H2S Releases in Alberta’s history of drilling incidents. While safety training and emergency response procedures are common practice today, Alberta’s history of worker and public protection was very different decades ago.

Besides public protection and avoidance of pollution, the other benefit of H2S Alive training includes proper education for our workers, who have the right to avoid the toxic, flammable, explosive and corrosive effects of this dangerous nerve gas!