Public approval falling for oil

There’s less oil and more troubled water in Alberta’s energy sector.

EDMONTON — There’s less oil and more troubled water in Alberta’s energy sector.

The province’s energy regulator has released a survey of how companies are living up to regulations, and while almost every measure of compliance is stable or slightly improved, one critical measure has fallen off badly — public satisfaction.

“Traditionally it’s been very positive,” Darin Barter, a spokesman for the Energy and Resources Conservation Board, said Wednesday. “This year, it’s not positive at all.”

A survey of people who called the board with a complaint last year found that 68 per cent of them were happy with the way their dispute was resolved. That’s a decrease from 83 per cent the year before and from traditional levels in the 90s, said Barter.

“We need to look at this,” Barter said.

“We need to find out how we can improve our service to Albertans because that number’s not acceptable.”

As well, there was a slight decrease in satisfaction with the way the board dealt with complainants — from 97 to 94 per cent.

That increase in public discontent comes despite numbers showing the board inspected a record number of energy facilities. Pipeline leaks reached a new low.

Compliance rates for serious infractions improved, and the overall number of public complaints dropped to 643 from 744 in 2008.

Barter suggests the falling satisfaction level is related to the overall decline in oilpatch activity. Drilling, for example, declined by more than half to 7,232 new wells. That may have left inspectors with a higher percentage of older, more intractable complaints to deal with.

“Now that the activity isn’t so in-your-face, I believe that the complaints we’re finding are more complex than just a quick fix,” Barter said.

He also suggests public expectations also may have changed.

“It could be they’re expecting more from the ERCB. One way or another we do need to find out.”

Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute, an environmental think-tank, agreed that may be the case.

“I could be based on the fact that the regulations we have in place are no longer seen as adequate.”

Still, Dyer praised the report’s overall findings.

“It’s encouraging, the increasing number of inspections,” he said. “That has to continue.”

The report also reveals 2009 was the third year in a row that compliance with flaring regulations remained below the levels of 2006, when companies captured virtually all natural gas produced.

Barter said that dropoff is related to a decline in the price of natural gas, which reduces the incentive to capture low volumes of it. He said the board is considering changes to regulations to encourage companies to start capturing all of it again.

“We’ve seen the flaring numbers and the venting numbers go up. We need to look at more creative ways to make an incentive for companies to not flare and vent.”

The activities, which release raw natural gas directly into the atmosphere, have been blamed in the past for health problems in humans and animals.

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