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AEI in the world: Alberta oil and gas noise control conference

Human impacts, Science, Science Conferences, Wind turbines Add comments

After my participation on a Canadian government expert group looking at offshore oil and gas noise, I headed west to Banff for my second appearance as a plenary speaker at the Alberta oil and gas industry’s biannual Spring Noise Conference. Here, participants are largely agency staff and noise control contractors, with a few oil and gas companies participating as well. Alberta has a vibrant oil and gas industry (read: most important economic driver for the Province), and while the landscape is heavily tapped by traditional oil and natural gas drilling, coalbed methane development, surface coal mining, and, infamously, oil sands development, Alberta’s noise regulations are among the most stringent in the world: impact on neighbors cannot exceed 5dB above the local ambient noise conditions.  This year’s conference (and the very informative pre-conference workshop I attended) expanded from its roots in oil and gas development, to include wind farms.

   I had lengthy conversations with the chief environmental regulators of both the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board (oil and gas) and the Alberta Utilities Board (wind and other electricity generation), both of whom are impressively engaged with the many questions around noise impacts and public involvement.

I was especially impressed at the vibrancy and palpable enthusiasm of the noise control engineers, who have far more opportunities here than in the US (where noise standards are generally far more lax) to be called upon to solve difficult and engaging noise dampening problems. Building ventilation, pump noise, compressor engines, and the like all need to be adapted to minimize noise output without harming their crucial primary operating conditions (pressure, power, etc.). Perhaps the most impressive presentation had to do with quieting the giant equipment used in a big strip mine: this involves creating custom mufflers to add to the world’s largest dump trucks and digging machines, jerry-rigging solutions to fit in awkward spaces while accomodating unusual functional needs (such as having the truck’s exhaust run through the dump truck’s load, to keep it from freezing!).  Another compelling set of presentations looked at wind turbine noise, with some exciting new research that detailed the ways that some of the most annoying noise (a pulsing sound) is very directional, which may explain some of why noise disturbance is centered on a few residents in some situations.  Also amazing were reports from the leading edges of noise reduction for the 24/7 compressor stations used in Coalbed Methane fields; a suite of mufflers and housings have made it possible to reduce this often very disturbing noise source to inaudible levels at quite close range.

As is often the case, I was brought in to provide a bigger-picture perspective in the midst of the other very practically-oriented presentations. I shared some thoughts based on my monitoring of the regulatory and research arenas in recent years, suggesting that even though Alberta has a very progressive noise standard, public, scientific, and regulatory pressures are likely to drive a continual evolution of noise standards toward a “below-ambient” level, where new noise sources will need to be inaudible at nearby residences. It was heartening to hear the enthused feedback to the talk from many attendees, and to hear some afternoon talks the following day that highlighted exactly the dynamics that I was addressing, in which particular companies have begun moving beyond the current noise standards and committing to using the maximum noise control that is technologically available. I got especially positive reactions to the way that my presentation embraced these and other positive forces within the industry, rather than simply presuming to have some “better” idea from outside. You can see a PDF version of my presentation here.  (Note: I downsized the images in this rather picture-heavy presentation to facilitate online viewing; many images are fuzzier than those seen in the room!)

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