Oil wells and the Alberta city: Rift widens between worried families, elected officials and school boards, and the industry

Oil wells and the city: Rift widens between anti-oil activists, developers in resource-rich Alberta by Jen Gerson, March 7, 2014, National Post


Laurie Chinn of West Lethbridge, Photo by David Fuller for National Post

Laurie Chinn is standing behind an uncommon cause in resource-rich Alberta: opposing the oil industry. The Lethbridge mother of two, along with a local activist group, is protesting a proposal that would see several wells built in her neighbourhood, one of the fastest-growing parts of the southern prairie city. If approved, the pumpjacks would be within walking distance of homes, leisure centres and the school her children are likely to attend. “If I choose to put my children in the new school down the street, they will be able to see [the oil wells] from the schoolyard, for sure,” she said. “I was actually quite shocked something like this could be happening within our municipal boundaries.’’

It’s no secret the province hides a wealth of black gold (and invisible gas) under the soil. That’s true in farmer’s fields and cities alike. And as the oil-fuelled economy proves to be the catalyst for a population boom that needs ever-more land, urban centres are finding themselves increasingly at odds with oil and gas development. Cities and residents aren’t opposed to the oil itself — everyone in Alberta knows what butters their bread — but they are concerned about the safety, smell, noise and transportation issues that can come with living next to a pumpjack. The cities themselves, newly emboldened with growing wealth and political influence, are balking at what they claim are archaic directives governing the industry. A city council can plan to the centimetre where a shopping mall or industrial park will go. It can’t control oil and gas — the province can put a well wherever it wants.

The provincial government has long promised new guidelines to help the Alberta Energy Regulator govern where oil and gas wells are approved within populated areas. The energy ministry has promised they’ll be out within coming weeks. Cities hope the legislation will allow them to better control where oil wells go — or at least strengthen requirements for pumpjacks in populated areas. The issue came to a head last year when Kaiser Exploration Ltd. proposed an oil well in Calgary’s Royal Oak neighbourhood, a stone’s throw away from a Walmart. “It was just just 125 metres from the main shopping centre that we use for groceries and cafes. It was near a very busy road,” said Ward Sutherland, who successfully led the fight against the proposal before becoming the ward’s councillor in last year’s municipal election.

It wasn’t the concept of oil that bothered residents — many of them work in the industry. Oil wells sometimes smell bad. They can be unsightly. Of greater concern to Mr. Sutherland were the transportation issues. The community has few roads in or out, meaning an evacuation could be a nightmare. Further, industrial trucks would be needed to cart the oil away from the well. The proposed well was moved 2 km away. “I wouldn’t say there should be no wells in any city. I would say yes, there can be some but there should be appropriate spots for them and there needs to be new guidelines to ensure there is safety,” Mr. Sutherland said.

According to Bob Willard, spokesperson for the Alberta Energy Regulator, there are 650 active oil and gas wells in Alberta’s urban centres, mostly in industrial zones, and they have recorded few problems. If you were to trace a ring 1.6km wide around those cities, you would find another 3,300 wells, Mr. Willard said. As Alberta boasts the fastest population growth in Canada, prompting cities to stretch even further into the prairie, suburban residents will be increasingly at loggerheads with the oil and gas industry. “As urban centres grow, the potential for conflict is there,” he said. “We try to balance the social and economic components, so it’s not one or the other. Within that balance, public safety is number one. So if there is a proposed development that unreasonably puts the public at risk, we would deny those applications.”

Mr. Willard said the regulator already consults with counties, municipalities and nearby residents when considering a well application. [Over 14 years of living frac’d on the outskirts of the Hamlet of Rosebud, Ernst has repeatedly experienced the AER lie and cover up non-compliance by Encana. Ernst experienced was zero consultation when Encana was granted approval from the AER (when it was the ERCB) in one day, to drill under her already dangerously contaminated land. And when Ernst wrote concerns and questions to this non-compliance, and asked what chemicals would be injected under her land, the AER wrote that because Encana admitted their non-compliance, the AER ruled Encana was compliant and that Ernst had no rights, not even regarding loss of use of her own land] Thousands of applications are rejected over safety concerns, or the objections of neighbours. Each application is judged on a case-by-case basis, he said. [Rubber stamp more accurate?]

Brad Herald, director of Alberta operations with the Canadian Association of Oil Producers, said the province already has a well-established [Self-reporting, largely voluntary “guidelines” with endless loopholes and escape hatch words like “may” and “should” and “typically”] and sophisticated regulatory framework governing oil production. “[Wells] are very safe. Alberta has decades worth of oil and gas activities interfacing with communities and peoples’ dwellings,” he said, adding that he understands that residents often have concerns when they live next to such sites. “Stakeholder concerns are always legitimate. Any time a new activity is going to come, people want to know how it’s going to impact them, whether it will be done safely and what impacts it has on their communities.” [Encana fractured hundreds of gas wells where the fresh water is around Rosebud and directly into the community’s drinking water aquifers in secret. The community had no chance to raise “stakeholder concerns”]

In the meantime, Lethbridge has passed a motion in favour of barring all oil and gas applications until the new provincial rules come down. “This is going to keep happening. Will oil companies be able to drill wherever they want, regardless of what it happens to be within our cities? That’s the big issue,” said Lethbridge Mayor Chris Spearman.

Earlier this year, Goldenkey Oil Inc. held open houses for a proposal to drill three exploratory wells on the west side of the city. A formal application has not yet been submitted to the energy regulator. Lethbridge already has 19 active wells within city limits, but Mr. Spearman said those pumps are all within low-lying areas of the city — typically far away from residential areas. The Goldenkey proposal would put wells in one of the fastest-growing communities in the city of 90,000. The city has spent tens of millions of dollars on a new curling rink in the area, and it has plans to expand an aquatic centre. Several new schools are to be built, as well as big-box shopping. Oil wells, he fears, could put a stop to the city’s plans. And there’s very little the municipality can do about it. “If we did have an incident there, a lot more people would be impacted far more quickly. We have two bridges to evacuate people of West Lethbridge,” he said. “We would have industrial trucks going through residential areas to service these wells. They would be going through school zones.” The mayor insists this isn’t just a case of NIMBYism. “We’re more friendly to the oil and gas industry here in Alberta, but it’s all about compatible land uses.” [Emphasis added]

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