Calgary — Alberta’s urban/rural divide, pitting farmers against oilmen, will widen further if the province’s energy regulator allows energy companies to pack more wells onto a section of land than previously allowed, environmentalists and rural Albertans fear.
“We have to save some land to farm,” said Don Bester, a land-rights advocate whose home sits east of Innisfail. “It’s hard to move big equipment around a quarter section when there’s multiple, multiple wells.”
Alberta’s Energy Resources Conservation Board is looking to remove a rule specifying the number of wells allowed in each section of land, saying in the directive that “increased well densities are necessary to recover the resource.”
Stephen Smith, executive manager of the board’s applications branch, said proposed rule changes don’t necessarily mean a number of new drilling sites will be popping up on farmers’ fields across the province. Oil and gas technology now allows for multiple wells to be drilled from a single site or pad, he said.
The intent is to allow more pipes in the ground to make it easier for companies to draw more gas from unconventional sources like the seams of coal and, in future — when natural gas prices eventually rise — shale rocks.
Smith added that already, companies are often allowed more wells to extract coal bed methane (CBM) than stated in current regulations if they have worked out an agreement with landowners. Industry will continue to be required to work with landowners under the new system, he emphasized.
However, as the province looks to expand and maintain the competitiveness of its oil and gas industry, Smith said one thing is certain.
“You’re going to have to get more surface locations, regardless. We’re talking about the development of shale gas, we’re talking about the development of CBM. That can’t be done with the current surface locations that exist,” he said.
“So we’re going to be talking about a significant increase in the number of wells to be drilled in this province over the next 20 or 30 years.”
The conservation board, which was accepting more comments on the proposed changes this past week, said current well-spacing rules are complex and difficult to understand. The board said even with the proffered rule change, regulations related to the protection of land, water and wildlife — and consultations with landowners — will not change.
“This doesn’t do anything to take away people’s rights to decide where they want wells on their land,” said Granger Low, a Calgary reservoir and production consultant.
The changes will simply streamline a regulatory process, Low said.
“What it says is, ‘Look, don’t bother asking the government anymore to drill CBM wells, just go ask the surface owner,’” he said. “You spend less time on compliance and more time making oil and gas for the wealth of Albertans.”
Low added there are going to be some new wells drilled in areas that can’t be reached from existing well pads. But for fiscal reasons, “most oil and gas companies don’t want to pay for more surface area. They want to drill from the same location.”
"It's kind of scary. The whole process seems to start from the assumption that we have to get the resource out as quickly as physically possible, and that's more iimportant than anything else." - Nigel Douglas, Alberta Wilderness Association
Spokesmen from the industry also said they generally support the board’s push.
“With today’s directional drilling, it won’t necessarily in all areas require an increased number of surface locations. But I think it’s probably fair to say where vertical coal bed methane development is going to be employed, it could lead to increased numbers of (surface) wells,” said Kevin Heffernan, vice-president of the Canadian Society for Unconventional Gas.
“All of that of course is contingent on whether it makes economic sense and whether there’s sufficient resource to justify it.”
Travis Davies, a spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said the board’s plan reflects changes in resource plays across the province, and “all of this is forward looking.”
However, the proposed regulatory change is a major concern to many landowners, who now add this directive to a long list of what they consider the invasion of their private-property rights.
In the same days outgoing premier Ed Stelmach acknowledged growing rural anger, promised a review of contentious land-use laws and spoke about his deep commitment to landowners, Bester said, “I don’t know what the Crown is thinking when they start messing with farmers and their property rights.”
He believes the proposed changes will cut the available appeals when an energy company wants to put in more wells than a landowner wants.
“We’ve done our part for the public good. We’ve allowed wells to come in and we’ve allowed reduced spacing in certain areas,” said Bester, who is also president of the Alberta Surface Rights Group.
“But now it’s no right of objection to it. It’s wide open.”
Concerns about possible groundwater contamination from coal-bed methane activity, which is most concentrated in the Calgary-Edmonton corridor, have been percolating in Alberta since the advent of the industry about a decade ago.
Bester’s group has long raised its objections to both coal bed methane and transmission lines, and is also planning a rally in Trochu, southeast of Red Deer, on Feb. 1 to call on the Stelmach government to get rid of legislation meant to kick-start carbon capture and underground storage projects. The law gives a government guarantee that it will take on the long-term legal liability for such projects.
Landowners aren’t the only group concerned about the regulator’s plans. The Alberta Wilderness Association has written a letter to the board stating it opposes any move that will lead to increased oil and gas well densities.
Association conservation specialist Nigel Douglas said this move would have an enormous impact on grasslands, wetlands and threatened wildlife such as grizzly bears and sage grouse.
“It’s kind of scary,” Douglas said of the energy regulator’s push.
“The whole process seems to start from the assumption that we have to get the resource out as quickly as physically possible, and that’s more important than anything else.”