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?





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. 🙂