Pipelines, facilities and active and abandoned energy wells can throw wrench into city planning; Trying to give city of Lethbridge more say

Pipelines can throw wrench into city planning by Dave Mabell, January 25, 2014, Lethbridge Herald
More than 100 years ago, noting their rival city’s success, Lethbridge city officials approved plans to drill for gas in and around their coal-mining town. But little was found, the city’s planning director points out. So Lethbridge never developed a natural gas utility to mirror Medicine Hat. For awhile, drill sites in Lethbridge may have been as obvious as the mines. But less visibly, Lethbridge has remained a small player in the province’s oil and gas industry. “There’s been well activity in and around Lethbridge for many years,” planner Jeff Greene says. There are also energy pipelines east and north of the city, and some smaller lines linking a handful of long-operating wells inside the city’s western limits.

They date from the 1970s and ’80s, he points out – when few people expected to see west Lethbridge grow so fast. In 15 or 20 years, the oil companies predicted, the wells would be depleted and the sites could be capped off. In fact, Greene reports, they’re still producing and there’s been no word recently on how long they’ll remain in place. But even a small number of wells may have influenced the city’s plans for new westside neighbourhoods. Today, he says, the province’s energy regulators let cities and towns know what oil or gas projects are proposed. But after years of low-volume production, there’s a small network of pipes and abandoned wells west of the river – both inside the city and on county land further west. And now, as most Lethbridge residents realize, a Calgary company wants to start drilling new exploratory wells within sight of some of the city’s newest homes. That raises a host of questions, Greene says, including health and safety concerns along with unexpected challenges for land use planners and residential developers. “Pipelines are difficult to develop around” and so are wells, holding tanks and safety buffers. “So pipelines and wells will determine the city’s design,” he fears.

So far one company – Goldenkey Oil – has announced plans to drill at several “urban” sites, inside city limits. That’s scheduled to start as soon as this spring, if provincial authorities disregard the city’s strong opposition and issue the company a permit. If no oil is found, despite ongoing improvements in exploration and directional drilling, today’s heated discussions may fade away. But if Goldenkey hits paydirt, Greene says, Lethbridge residents could see a lot more oil rigs on the edge of town. Or even closer, if the Conservative government’s new urban drilling rules don’t require more public protection – and bigger buffer zones – assuming officials allow drilling to continue. And that might jeopardize plans for new westside neighbourhoods and cut into the amount of land available for future development there. “The city doesn’t have a lot more land,” Greene says.

If future westside developments are hobbled by the energy industry, there’s only a limited amount of acreage remaining undeveloped in the city’s southeast and northern edges. “We have the next 30 years of development planned out,” and the city’s westside is a main focus. If the provincial government orders cities and town to accommodate urban drilling, however, much of that planning work could be wasted.

Who decides? And when will west Lethbridge homeowners – and residents right across the city – hear the Conservative government’s verdict? There are actually three decisions in the works. One of them is found in the “final draft” of the South Saskatchewan River basin regional plan, Greene says. As it now reads, resource development would take precedence over the city’s plans for new neighbourhoods, streets, parks, school sites, commercial areas and homes. Not surprisingly, city council is urging that provision be scrapped.

The second decision, originally expected before Christmas, will be contained in the government’s long-awaited policy statement on energy drilling inside urban areas. And Lethbridge isn’t the only city where that’s an issue, Greene says: Calgary, Red Deer and Edmonton have all been dealing with that unwelcome development. “Hopefully, we’ll see something roll out soon,” he says. “We’ll be watching to see which direction the government moves.”

A third decision point will come after Goldenkey decides when to apply for permits covering its west Lethbridge project. Regardless of what provincial politicians agree to say, the government’s arms-length Alberta Energy Regulator makes the final call on those and all projects. What if Goldenkey is allowed to start drilling? Emergency services, health authorities, city officials and the company might have to sit down with the energy regulators to draw up contingency plans for all possibilities. But for Greene and his planning staff, it could be back to the drawing board. Development plans might have to be revised quickly to include new wells and pipelines. But that’s already being done in some of the province’s larger communities, Greene says. “Red Deer has been dealing with it much longer,” and so have smaller cities like Airdrie.

Lethbridge may also be forced to put oil and gas companies’ wishes ahead of the best possible designs for the city’s new amenities and neighbourhoods. Planners always consider a variety of issues, Greene says. They could range from the location of hills and coulees, to an area’s proximity to railways, rivers and reservoirs. “Oil and gas operations could become just another one of those things,” he says. “They all can become a challenge to a well-designed community.” [Emphasis added]

2014 01 25 Pipelines can throw wrench into city planning

Trying to give city more say by Chris Spearman, Mayor of Lethbridge, January 24, 2014, Lethbridge Herald
It has been a long time since I have seen an issue galvanize so many in our community the way the matter of urban oil and gas drilling has. When I’m out in the community, urban drilling is frequently the first thing that people bring up in conversation. For many, there is a sense of disbelief that such activity could be allowed to occur within Lethbridge city limits. Many people are also shocked that the existing regulatory regime in Alberta provides no legal authority for municipal governments to allow or disallow oil and gas drilling within their urban boundaries.

On one hand, Alberta’s Municipal Government Act (MGA) grants municipal governments authority to designate different areas within their city limits for various land uses such as residential, commercial, schools, industrial and heavy industrial. Yet on the other hand, the MGA states that approvals or authorizations granted by certain provincial bodies such as the Energy Resources Conservation Board (now known as the Alberta Energy Regulator) prevail over area plans and land-use bylaws established by local governments. In other words, our local land-use bylaws don’t apply when it comes to approvals granted by the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER).

As you’ve likely heard by now, a junior energy exploration company named GoldenKey Oil has secured mineral rights from Alberta Energy and is preparing an application to the AER to drill three exploratory oil wells in west Lethbridge. The proposed well sites are as close as one kilometre to some existing residential neighbourhoods in west Lethbridge. As you may also be aware, the previous city council adopted a resolution in November 2012 stating its opposition to urban drilling out of concern that such activity would effectively sterilize developable urban land by creating the need for setbacks to separate future neighbourhoods from underground pipelines or other oil infrastructure. It was a largely symbolic stance, given that municipalities have no legal authority over urban drilling. But was significant, just the same, and your current city council fully supports this stance.

Drilling activity within our city limits would only make it more difficult and expensive to develop those lands in the future, and it would create no real economic benefit for our city. If our local land-use bylaws could be applied to oil or natural gas drilling, such activity would no doubt be classified as heavy industrial activity and would be deemed unsuitable at GoldenKey’s proposed sites in west Lethbridge because they are designated for future residential development. In virtually no other circumstance could heavy industrial activity occur within a current or future residential area. It is not by accident or chance that Lethbridge’s industrial businesses are located together in industrial parks situated in the city’s northeast sector. Through solid long-term planning, the city isolates industrial activity in order to minimize its impact on residential living.

City council is also concerned about what’s missing from another legal land-use framework that the province has been developing the past few years: the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan (SSRP). The current draft SSRP essentially reinforces what the MGA effectively states: that Alberta municipalities have almost no role or say when it comes to resource extraction (i.e. oil and gas drilling) within their city or town limits. The provincial government recently extended its deadline to Feb. 28, 2014 for us to provide feedback on the latest draft plan. We will be telling the province that we remain concerned that the current draft lacks any mention of or provision for municipal input into resource development in urban areas. We are seeking to begin a dialogue with our provincial government with the objective of seeing that municipal governments have some formal say on drilling projects proposed within their urban boundaries. It’s encouraging that our two local MLAs have supported our stand and publicly voiced their opposition to urban drilling.

It has been especially heartening to witness the large number of Lethbridge residents who have become informed about this issue and are now mobilizing to ensure that their voices are heard. If we are ultimately successful in influencing the provincial government to formally acknowledge the essential role that municipalities ought to play when it comes to resource development within urban boundaries, it will be due, in large part, to the passionate, reasoned activism of our community. There is clearly a hunger in our community for comprehensive, objective information on the issue of urban oil and gas drilling. That’s why city council has decided to devote an upcoming Community Issues Committee meeting to this issue. We’re going to host an independent panel of specialists in several areas including: industry process and regulation; health and safety; the municipality; and drilling.

We’re still working out logistics and assembling the panel, but we expect to host the session sometime in the next four weeks. Details will be announced as soon as they’re confirmed. Representatives of GoldenKey Oil contacted me recently indicating their desire to address city council about their proposed drilling project, and I hope they will take the opportunity to do so at a regular council meeting. [Emphasis added]

Citizens losing control of their own country by Larry March, January 25, 2014, Lethbridge Herald
Canadian democracy is almost a thing of the past! Why would our government back a company to drill and fracture within Lethbridge city limits and not seem to care what the voters want? Why do the MLAs sit quiet and not fight for the people they represent? Why, after reducing the money to the college and university, did the government all of a sudden come up with, I believe, $256 million? If a certain someone in Edmonton has a bad day and drilling within city limits is stopped, don’t be surprised if they take it all away again just like the police college in Fort Macleod!

Soon we won’t have any long-term care centres, we’ll be paying health premiums, and the large corporations will run everything. Just look at the omnibus bill the government is pushing through so that farmers will no longer be able to produce their own crop seed. Why would the government do something like that? Why so many cutbacks in a province that should have billions from royalties?

We don’t own this country anymore, the government does, along with their allies, the big corporations and they are totally out of control! At least the communists did it out in the open! It’s time to take back what rightfully belongs to the people who built this country! The government works for the people! It’s time for change before it’s too late! When we lose our rights and control of our own country, slavery isn’t far down the road!

[Refer also to:

EnCana Methane wells in golf course anger County by Strathmore Standard, April 10, 2008
Two low pressure shallow gas wells were drilled in the Lakes of Muirfield’s golf course over the Easter long weekend, against the wishes of Wheatland County.…“[EnCana] had no regard for our policies,” said Jennifer Deak, County CAO. A part of Wheatland County’s Land Use Bylaw indicates that no wells will be drilled within 1.5 kilometres of a town or hamlet. This well was drilled right within the hamlet of Lyalta. … It was the disregard for their bylaws councillors were shocked by and the proximity to homes. [Emphasis added]

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