Trappers, beavers, farmers and gas, oh my.

15 11 2010

Nice beaver carcass (still intact). Still from footage shot by T. Elliott

I had a thrilling and productive time during my trip last week to Northeastern BC as I researched a couple of stories.

One priority was to firm up details about a project we’re doing for the B.C. Trapper’s Association, which ended with the predictable result that instead of talking turkey (and dollars and cents), we ended up filming a few sessions of beaver/otter/fox-pelting instead. (What’s the point of talking with the camera off, anyway?)

The beaver skinning and the otter fleshing-out were graphic, but I was OK with it. Mostly. But the fox being skinned out almost made me revisit my excellent dinner of elk meat I’d eaten earlier that night. Apart from that, I got to film a snare-tying workshop with the Fort St. John Trappers, and on my last day in the north, a mercy killing of muskrats who would have starved to death in a slowly freezing pond in Dawson Creek. Altogether, a bush education to whip the city-smarts right out of me!

The other story is bittersweet for me. I was privileged to attend the arbitration hearing of a local farmer who is refusing to settle with a gas company in the matter of compensation for their use of his land. The matter is about a year old since they already put the pipeline through his property in Fall 2009, thanks to an order for right of entry from the Surface Rights Board.

Objectively, it was a fascinating glimpse into the process that grinds through every layer of community and industry when a culture experiences a massive economic shift from one resource base to another. We’ve already witnessed it poignantly here in B.C. with the decline of the softwood lumber industry, and we’re seeing it again as oil and gas replaces agriculture as the most lucrative product out of BC’s Northeast. Personally however, it was hard to witness firsthand what happens to the people who get caught in the middle of that process. Progress must be allowed, but for those still using the technology of the last resource boom, it’s a hard time of adjustment.

Wheat field near Fort St John, BC

This land is no longer valued as BC’s breadbasket (the fact that it ever was would take most people south of Prince George by surprise.) Month by month, revenues increase from natural gas exploration and drilling in the north, as the earlier generation of resource extraction, agricultural use of the land, gradually loses its value.

The shifting resource hierarchy can be described by a term land assessors use to evaluate it: “highest and best use.” According to BC Assessment’s glossary, Highest and Best Use means: that reasonably probable and legal use of vacant land or an improved property that is physically possible, legally permissible, appropriately supported, financially feasible, and that results in the highest value. (Appraisal of Real Estate 2nd Canadian Edition, 2002)

It basically means that land will be assessed according to its most lucrative utility. Whether that’s a BC Hydro substation replacing a corn field, or a quarter section of marginal quality farmland being leased to a gas drilling company, the shifting priorities of the burgeoning population require that the land use changes along with it. In the south of B.C. in the populous Fraser Valley where I live, you can already see the change in the landscape as farms in the ALR (Agricultural Land Reserve) are gobbled up and rezoned for residential and commercial use. (Another post on another day about issues with the ALR itself in the north – a citizen’s movement would see it abolished entirely in the regional districts east of the Rockies.)

And now, the same thing is happening in the north of B.C. that has already happened to many parts of Alberta. “Highest and best use” no longer applies to land solely for farming and agriculture, but more and more, it perfectly defines oil and gas activities.

As we all know, the world is looking for a source of energy that’s cheaper and less damaging than oil. “Dirty oil” is impugned for causing wars, sickness, pollution, crippled economies, foreign government takeovers, and basically, just about the total decimation of life on planet Earth as we know it. But with more advanced technology, we’ve tapped another resource that has lain dormant for thousands of years: natural gas. Trapped in shale rock, the gas has been waiting for generations for the right technology to release it so it can be transformed into electricity and consumer products, a relatively clean burning fuel that can heat homes, drive cars and cook food.

Perhaps it’s a simple matter of priorities. Do we want bread, or to heat our houses and use electricity?

Or are there other options that we’re simply not looking at hard enough?

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Burning Water and a Fracking Disaster in the Making

19 10 2010

I am getting redundant on the subject of water and fracking, I know, I know. But if you think I’m repetitive, try watching the news just for one day.

Today I got a thorough reminder about why I get so angry with how we exploit our natural resources in B.C.

Tonight on CBC’s the Passionate Eye, I watched an excellent doc “Burning Water” (link to video online here) about the effects of fracking on local water supplies – in this case, in Rosebud Alberta. Produced by Frederic Bohbot and directed by Cameron Esler and Tadzio Richards, the film follows the nightmare of one Alberta family whose tap water can be lit on fire because there’s so much methane in it. They think EnCana contaminated their aquifer by drilling into it for methane. Like so many farmers in Northeastern BC, the Lauridsens came to the wide open spaces to farm, and live in peace and quiet, but what they end up having to live with is beyond anything we can imagine.

Scene from the recent HBO documentary about natural gas drilling: "Gasland" by Josh Fox.

Also, I’m reading/following Andrew Nikiforuk‘s work. It kind of makes it hard to sleep at night. The Calgary journalist is a thorn in oil and gas industry’s collective side as he’s written extensively about the “Dirty Secrets” in the tar sands. His book “Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent” came out in 2008. He’s also currently the Tyee’s writer-in-residence and just wrote an excellent article about the unbelievable rate we’re sucking up water to get natural gas out of the bedrock. Read it here: A Fracking Disaster in the Making.

I’m not even going to get into Quebec’s shale gas fight, except to say Hurrah! They are at least holding public hearings to look into the impacts of drilling for shale gas. BEFORE they start drilling.

Maybe they’re learning from BC’s largely silent, suffering farmers, that it’s better to force the government to look before it leaps to take everyone down the same merrily burning path.





Industry jobs are open for former oil and gas ministry underlings

11 10 2010

The Tyee and The Public Eye report this week a third case of a senior energy, mines and petroleum resources’ ministry official going “directly from being on the province’s payroll to working for a major petroleum interest.”

Michael Lambert was a former executive director of strategic initiatives for the ministry’s oil and gas division. According to his job description, he’d been responsible for developing laws and policies to “facilitate natural gas development opportunities.” Now he’s working for Encana, a major pipeline player in northeastern B.C.

In an interview with Public Eye, Lambert said one of his principle tasks at the ministry “was working on the new Oil and Gas Activities Act’s environmental protection and management regulation. “Industry, of course, would have wanted the lightest environmental reg possible, I suppose,” he commented. “That’s not what they got.”

The former bureaucrat said he was in contact with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers during the consultation process for that regulation. But “everybody had a say and often a conflicting say,” including the natural gas producer he’s now working for: Encana Inc. Although he stressed the firm didn’t have any “undue influence.”

Lambert said cutbacks at the ministry convinced him to compete to be an environment land use planning advisor for Encana, one of several companies moving to develop British Columbia’s Horn River Basin — Canada’s largest shale gas field.” (from The Tyee and Public Eye, by Sean Holman)

Interesting, no? Or maybe it’s not a conflict of interest at all that someone would go directly from working for the government to create a new Act to regulate the oil and gas industry, to being hired by the industry itself to implement those same regulations.

I don’t know. Someone tell me I’m not seeing a plain ol’ case of regulatory capture here.

The Act itself is hardly newsworthy. Reading through it, I get the impression the OGC just wants to make doubly sure they have done due diligence in advising oil and gas companies to:

1. Communicate with “affected parties”

2. reduce to plain English the highly technical terms if their extraction processes

3. Reply to the questions and concerns of affected parties

4. Fill out the appropriate reams of paperwork to prove they have done so that….

they can get their seal of approval from the Commission and a pat on the back for all their consultative pains.

The interesting part of the new Act I found was under the “Guidelines for Consultation and Notification | October 2010.” Here, the Commission advises the Company to inform themselves of “best practices for engagement … in the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers’ Guide for Effective Public Involvement, available at www.capp.ca.”

CAPP is "the voice of Canada's upstream oil, oil sands and natural gas industry."

 

Is the ministry/Commission/government really that involved they would actually suggest the company to check with their own lobby group’s handbook for dealing with landowners?

Who is regulating who?





The Last Great Water Fight

22 09 2010

The Mackenzie headwaters, photo by Garth Lenz

Surprise surprise… or rather it shouldn’t be a surprise that The Walrus magazine’s biggest feature this month is about the tug-of-war between the environment and industry in Canada’s great north. Water, Site C dam on the Peace, the as-yet-unspoiled Mackenzie River, Albert’s water-guzzling oilsands, the watershed of the Great Bear Lake – it’s all there.

Environmental questions are becoming ever more crystallized through the lens of human survival, rather than seen as just another hippy pastime or an earthlover’s out-of-touch plea. It’s become about whether we will be able to survive the onslaught of natural disasters that are coming as a result of our cultural love of consumption.

I read the article and wept. It already feels too late.





E.P.A. demands to know composition of fracking fluid

15 09 2010

A drill rig near the town of Pinedale, Wyo. (Credit: Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica)

Apparently New Yorkers, West Virginians and Penn State residents are concerned enough about the effect of hydraulic fracking on their watertables that its got the Environmental Protection Agency touring those states, holding public hearings to discuss it. Now, there’s a thought.

N.Y. Senate has even instituted a ban on fracking until early next year while they examine the practice.

Now, in a even more radical step that appears to be in the public interest, the E.P.A. wants to know what’s in that darned fracking fluid.

I was directed to this article in the NYTimes by a blog calling itself ‘Horn River News’ – whose authors apparently wish to remain anonymous – about the E.P.A. having requested “detailed information about the chemicals contained in fluids used to crack open underground rock formations in the hunt for oil and natural gas.”

Like, could it have caused benzene to show up in water wells in Sublette County, Wyo.? The state with one of the biggest natural gas fields in the U.S.? That’s one of the questions posed by this ProPublica article. Benzene is believed to cause aplastic anemia and leukemia.

Wouldn’t you like to know if that’s being pumped into the groundwater near you? Canada? B.C.? Anyone?

And the E.P.A. sounds serious about what could happen if they don’t get the information in 30 days: ” ‘To the extent that E.P.A. does not receive sufficient data in response to this letter,’ the agency warned, ‘E.P.A. will be exploring legal alternatives to compel submission of the needed information.’ “(source NYTimes) The letters were sent to Halliburton, BJ Services, Complete Production Services, Key Energy Services, Patterson-UTI Energy, RPC Inc., Schlumberger, Superior Well Services and Weatherford International. Oh I hope they have teeth on this threat.

The E.P.A. probably don’t see the irony in the situation, but I do, in a sad-ironic kind of way. They already tested the practice back in 2004 and deemed hydraulic fracking “essentially safe”, exempting it from the Safe Drinking Water Act. The current Congress told them to re-do their homework and report back in 2012.

Would B.C.’s government be interested in the same information?

Should they?

When will it be too late to find out what’s already been released into the bedrock?

Your thoughts.

——

*I like this post, asking the good ol’ average citizen to care: http://boatrocker.wordpress.com/2010/06/14/ignorance-isnt-the-problem/

“The people who know and care – but don’t drive public decisions – are the parents and grandparents of kids sickened by the chemicals; people who rely on truck-delivered water or expensive, energy-intense filtration machines because their wells are poisoned and their tap-water is flammable; and people who hear those stories and feel similar fear, anger and grief as our collective failure to stop fracking continues, and their private nightmare becomes our public one: the toxic industrialization, dewatering and death of our Pennsylvania home.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself, Boatrocker.





Fracking, regulators and sour gas

14 09 2010

The site of the natural gas explosion in San Bruno, California, last Thursday.

When a natural gas pipeline ruptured in San Bruno last Thursday, killing four and injuring fifty people, the world woke up to the sobering reality that many in the Peace region have struggled for awhile now: natural gas can be just as ugly and just as costly as its sister industry, oil extraction.

As Charlotte and I work on logging and editing the footage for Horses for Orphans-Brazil project, I’ve been researching the possibilities of recording what’s happening in B.C.’s northeast, the Peace River region. There are so many energy questions and resource issues at stake that will, in one way or another, affect all Canadians, that it’s almost impossible to not consider doing a story on it.

Most obviously, there is the much-talked of “Site C” damming of the Peace river, the second such dam by BC Hydro on that river correction, sorry, the THIRD such dam – thanks Sharon! The W.A.C. Bennett dam was first, and then they built the Peace Canyon dam downstream. These two already supply 40% of British Columbia’s hydroelectric power.

Site C is raising so much opposition because the reservoir created will flood thousands of acres of prime agricultural land – almost 20 percent of the Class 1-3 farmland in the Peace River Valley, which contains some of the highest quality dirt in the province. There will be a protest by First Nations leaders and chiefs, local community members affected by the dam, and the Sierra Club on Sunday Sept. 19th, with a “Paddle to the Premier” in Victoria and a demonstration in front of the Parliament buildings. But that issue is being well-covered in the press, and I feel its public enough that most stakeholders will be able to have their say.

The other controversial energy issue that is lesser known outside the region is that around natural gas extraction, the darling of B.C. and Alberta governments, and of even environmentalists who consider it a relatively clean energy. But so little is known outside the industry about the methods of extraction that we are only starting to discover the true cost of the gas.

Montney-Deep basin shale gas play (middle area)

Because of new technology called hydraulic fracturing, gas companies are now able to drill horizontally, rather than just vertically, to access the gas trapped in shale rock. In the area I’m exploring it’s known as the Montney shale gas play. In a technique known as “fracking”, water in the tens of millions of gallons is poured into the drilled hole, then is highly pressurized until it fractures the bedrock in which the gas is trapped. After that, a cocktail of chemicals – which composition is a highly kept secret – is poured in to cause the gas to bubble to the surface.

Frackaction NY

So there are already three issues at stake here: 1. that huge amount of water used to extract the gas is lost forever from the watershed, never to return to rivers or ocean, and if it does, it will be heavily polluted by the mysterious chemical cocktail; 2. those chemicals have been known to poison nearby wells and groundwater in N.Y. state, which has caused such an uproar there is a one-year moratorium on fracking while the government assesses the dangers of the practice (http://dontfrackwithny.com/ http://nofracking.com/ http://www.frackaction.com/); and 3. horizontal drilling means that landowners who don’t even have a pad or well site on their land are unfairly affected by pipelines drilled into their land.

If a gas company has bought the lease to the land on which your house is standing, you have no choice but to deal with them because if you don’t, they might go to your neighbour, give HIM compensation and drill the pipeline right into your property anyway.

And I won’t even get into the safety issues of having a a 6-hole gas pad (about half the size of a football field) installed just 800 m from your house… how a region’s groundwater can become contaminated by methane… or how little sour gas it takes to kill you. That’s a whole other story. The meat of it for me is the landowners who moved to the Peace region to buy a bit of land to retire on in, well, in peace and quiet, who find themselves in the untenable position where they can’t protest or object to either their government or the (mainly) Alberta gas corporations about the development, because the right to do so has been sold from under their feet.

As Charlotte and I talked the other day about it, she asked the crucial question that lays bare how this crazy situation can even exist: “Who is regulating this? What is the government doing about it?”

The answer, of course, is, “It’s complicated.” It’s complicated because while Canada has a National Energy Board, and there is a Mediation and Arbitration Board to aid landowner-gas company negotiations, it would appear those bodies are so wedded to the lucrative private companies that little, if any, objectivity about the value of farmland vs. value of trapped gas, is possible.

I’ll get off my soapbox now and just leave you with two words: “regulatory capture.” A broad definition of the term and its impact can be found here:

http://www.landownerassociation.ca/regulatorycapture.html

OK, back to logging footage of beautiful horses and precious Brazilian children. 🙂





CAEPLA and craziness in the Peace

7 09 2010

EnCana natural gas pipeline

I think I’ll become an evangelist soon… or (God, no!!) an activist. The longer I stay in the Peace river region, the more I become infected with this crazy desire to make a movie about it. This whole sordid oil and gas mess makes me want to grab a camera and record everything – everything!

I got a chance to speak tonight to the head of CAEPLA (Canadian Association of Energy and Pipeline Landowner Associations), Dave Core, and I’m thankful – and blown away – by the scope he brings to the picture. I’ve been talking to farmers and landowners and trappers all around Farmington, Fort St. John, Rolla and Dawson Creek for a little under two weeks now, and while the stories are consistent and troubling, I didn’t have a holistic view of what is happening, and why, until we spoke.

Dave has been involved with a number of precedent-setting cases where a little group of landowners concerned for their land stood up to Big Oil and Gas and the National Energy Board, and won. They didn’t stop development on their land altogether – they’re not anti-development – but they did win some decent concessions that forced the oil and gas companies to acknowledge that landowners deserve to be treated fairly.

Dave told me enough stories and case studies that I feel more up to speed on what has been happening across the country. What concerns this post though, is how bad things are up in northeastern B.C., and if you believe the man who’s been fighting for responsible development for twenty years, according to him it’s as bad as it could get up here. Or worse.

Class 1 farmland, in the BC Peace River region

  • Ontario farmers and landowners at least have the rights to the minerals under their dirt. B.C. landowners don’t have a right to anything other than topsoil or the clay beneath it.
  • The land is actually not theirs to be held in total privacy because, at any time, a seismic imaging crew or a surveyor can come on your land to check it out, and you can’t turn them away.
  • If they find something under that dirt, you can bet a land agent will be at your door, or will start hassling you on the phone, until you sign something that gives the oil or gas company unfettered access to your land.
  • Once a pipeline is in, you can’t move a tractor, a lawnmower, or a bicycle over the line without getting permission from the company.
  • In some cases, they will take up 30 metres on either side of the pipe, in addition to the easement area of 18 metres for a total of 96 metres around that pipe, for however many hundreds of feet it takes up on your land, and you can’t do anything to it. No farming, no haying, no planting.
  • If the company currently taking up space on your land decides to deactivate the pipeline, they simply stop the flow of gas, and leave the pipe in your dirt. To rot. Or possibly cave in. Forever.
  • And if you damage that pipeline for any reason, you’re responsible. You pay. And if you hurt yourself on it, you’re equally liable.

So what does a farmer get for all this inconvenience, for a devalued piece of shit land that now he may not be able to pass on to his grandkids because it’s worthless or contaminated?
Nope, not royalties for the oil or gas passing through those pipes.

Nor a share of the bounty, which in B.C. amounted to $98 million in bonus bids IN AUGUST ALONE, bringing the total of land lease sales to oil and gas companies to $760 million for 2010 so far.

The average farmer might get a few thousand dollars, maybe $6,000, maybe $8,000, as a one-time payout for a lifetime of inconvenience and grief.

The government just announced it’s throwing some more money at the oil and gas companies – $115 million to build roads and infrastructure in underdeveloped areas specifically for oil and gas use. You know what that tells me? More wilderness thuggery, more dead animals, more expansion into B.C.’s bush and watershed.

The more I hear about how this land is being sold up the creek for a few million bags of gold (need to pay off the Olympics much, Mr. Campbell?)…

the more I hear about landowners being flat out lied to by land agents who come to their doors, uninvited, pressuring them to sign contracts that will strip the last of the few rights they have to their land…

the more I hear about out-of-province workers being brought in to do oil and gas work – labour that was promised to the citizens of these towns and villages….

the more I see of the bad roads, high gas and diesel prices, dead deer and moose from the ridiculous number of speeding truckers, driving back from some remote jobsite and eager to get back to the bar and raise hell…

the more I hear… (I just can’t believe what I’m hearing, but these are not the kind of people that would lie to you…)

the more I hear…

the more you’ll hear about it, because it’s not the kind of tiny-potatoes issue I could ignore.