Edmonton Journal article rank: 4 out of 5
Edmonton Journal; Page A18 Opinion
BY DENNIS MASCHMEYER
and BARRY EASTWOOD
Published: Monday, May 07, 2007
With production accelerating and potential sales falling,
Alberta has a serious, chronic problem of sulphur oversupply on
its hands. It must not be handled as if the glut is temporary,
and by storing the flammable and potentially toxic element too
close to adjacent communities. The ultimate cost to the economy
could run to the billions of dollars.
The yellow substance used in the production of acid, fertilizer,
pesticides and gunpowder is a byproduct of processing oilsands
bitumen. In 2001, an Alberta sulphur researcher predicted that
one upgrader alone could produce enough sulphur in the next 100
years to cover about 15 square kilometres of land. And while the
province’s industrial area immediately northeast of Edmonton is
now expecting eight to 12 new upgraders, almost no one is
talking about the leftover sulphur that will have to be stored
somewhere close to the producers.
Is this another inconvenient truth, an example of poor planning
on the part of developers and governments? The root issue is
that planners and upgrader owners are seeing this problem only
through individual projects and not in the aggregate. Will the
consequences have to be absorbed by Albertans who happen to be
living in the wrong place?
Experts in the sulphur business forecast a serious global
oversupply over the next 15 years, and that will place Alberta
sulphur producers at a significant disadvantage due to their
distance from the Port of Vancouver. Total world sulphur
production has increased to nearly 50 million tonnes per year,
of which a little more than half is exported. For many years,
Canada has been the major exporter with about a quarter of the
world market at eight million tonnes per year. Of this, six
million tonnes per year has been shipped by sea.
In the past 15 years, both supply and demand have been unstable.
The price has varied from $60 US per tonne in 2005-’06 to less
than $20 per tonne at the port of Vancouver as recently as 2001.
During this period of low sulphur prices, offshore sales of
sulphur cost producers in Alberta hundreds of millions of
dollars annually, because its value was less than the $30 US
cost per tonne to ship the sulphur to the coast.
During the same period, Canada has lost its dominance in the
seaborne market. In 1998 Canada shipped to 23 countries. Today
it is less than 10 countries, with China taking 70 per cent. The
Middle East has become the dominant seaborne supplier and with
new sulphur-forming facilities coming on stream in coastal
countries like Qatar, North American sulphur will slip from
being an oil industry byproduct to a waste product.
The Canadian sulphur market will be further affected as the sale
of sulphur to the U.S. drops an estimated 75 per cent by 2020.
This will be due to a combination of decreased phosphate
fertilizer production in the U.S. and increased sulphur
production from American offshore oil development.
What does all this mean to ordinary Albertans? Potentially a
great deal if you live near where larger and larger quantities
of sulphur are likely to be stored far into the future.
In recent papers that the authors of this article presented to
the Oil Sands Consultation Committee, we outlined the basis for
a safe sulphur-storage location strategy. Our recommendations
are based on the fundamentals of public safety and minimizing
risk to adjacent communities. They are also aimed at meeting the
needs of bitumen upgraders, communities and the collective
well-being of all other stakeholders.
We propose that sulphur storage and handling facilities be
situated for emergency planning purposes a minimum distance of
15 kilometres away from population centres. Preferably, these
sites will not be located on prime agricultural soils.
The presentation talked about how to define satisfactory
distances depending on the potential for emergency response.
Sulphur fires are easily started and can be devastating if not
stopped quickly. They generate highly toxic sulphur dioxide gas.
Other nasty products of combustion include sulphur trioxide and
sulfurous acid. These toxins are heavier than air and hug the
ground as they are blown by the wind away from the fire.
In 1995 in South Africa, for example, a sulphur fire led to
deaths and high morbidity in the town of Macassar less than four
kilometres downwind. Thousands of people were evacuated;
agricultural impacts ranged over a broad area extending to 30
kilometres from the fire, and included severe damage to plants
and animal deaths.
In comparison, the towns of Bruderheim and Lamont are two and
five kilometres respectively from a proposed sulphur facility in
Lamont County. This is dangerously close. The Macassar fire
consumed 7,250 tonnes of sulphur, less than 10 per cent of the
amount of sulphur to be stored in between the towns.
Therefore, diligent long-term planning is required immediately
by the Alberta government, along with business and municipal
stakeholders, to plan for safe sulphur storage in the area.
For the municipal and industrial members of Alberta’s industrial
heartland — comprised of the counties of Strathcona, Sturgeon
and Lamont, and the city of Fort Saskatchewan — to think that
the sulphur produced and formed in this area will simply go away
in rail cars to boundless market opportunities is wrong.
Alberta Environment and key regulators must become involved and
take this pending sulphur glut and its consequences under
scrutiny. The Environmental Impact Assessment process must be
aware that any sulphur handling and storage facility
applications may, through a misinterpretation of the market,
have too low an estimate of storage requirements.
If that happens, and more room is needed, the storage facilities
would of course have to be re-licensed. The trouble is, those
experienced with the re-licensing process have found it to be
far easier than getting the original approval. This could leave
those adjacent and growing towns like Bruderheim and Lamont at
risk of curtailed development due to the inherent hazards and
presence of the sulphur.
We need a serious long-term storage strategy to accommodate this
sulphur tsunami. Sulphur must be kept at safe distances for the
protection of the towns’ growth plans, growth aspirations,
schools, hospital and citizens.
This problem is with us now. Planning and research to establish
scientifically sound and low-risk sulphur storage and handling
facilities at safe isolation distances from communities is a
challenge we must manage now; and before the expanded synthetic
crude oil begins to flow from the heartland. It is time to get
our heads out of the sulphur and work together towards
Dennis Maschmeyer is a retired professional engineer with
a background in the metals and fertilizer industries. He
now has a mixed grain and cattle operation north of Bruderheim
in Lamont County.
Barry Eastwood is a safety and environmental professional
with experience in the oil refining, petrochemical and inorganic
chemical industries. He lives in Lamont.