Farmers battle oilmen over land use

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Say increased well density threatening their ability to work the land

An oilrig drills a well in northern Alberta.

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.”

Calgary Herald

Organizations: Energy Resources Conservation Board, Canadian Society for Unconventional Gas, Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers Alberta Surface Rights Group Alberta Wilderness Association

Geographic location: Calgary, Alberta, Innisfail Trochu Red Deer

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Recent comments

  • Brad
    February 01, 2011 - 11:08

    Don Bester should work for Greenpeace or PETA because the B.S., and scare tactics he is using are right on par. All this new rule does is to allow oil companies to put more drainage points into a reservoir from the same location, it doesn't mean they will be persueing more surface locations, as this would cost too much. They are just being allowed more wells per pad to allow them better recovery and production rates. Then you have this moron executive manager Steve Smith from the ERCB who wouldn't know wellspacing from a hole in his head making stupid comments showing that he obviously has no clue even about his own rules. Why don't they interview a working stiff who actually knows the rules and the changes and what they mean? Everyone knows upper management usually knows very little about normal operations. If the farmers were to succeed in fighting this, then the oil companies will pull out, the economy will go in the tank again, and the farmers will be looking for more handouts because there is no money for their product. The farmers should take the money given to them by industry and be content with the fact that if they do happen to get more wells on their property, they will get paid more money to have them. We are in Canada and those are the rules country wide, and if you don't like it Don, then move to the good ole USA where they are more easily fooled by fear mongerers. Oil makes this economy, not dirt.

  • Don
    January 31, 2011 - 19:08

    In 1960, the Canadian Bill of Rights was enacted under Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. The Bill of Rights enshrined property rights for Canadians. In 1982, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms of the Canadian Constitution was enacted under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms did not contain the property rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights. The NDP and Liberals colluded and agreed that property rights would be left out of the Charter or Rights and Freedoms. There are no good reasons why Canadians do not have property rights enshrined in the Canadian Constitution. Thanks to English Common law and early settlement some Canadians do have riparian and mineral rights on their land. Iron clad property rights would provide protection for private land owners against trespass, unwanted development and dispossession of the land owner by developers supported by Government. Regrettably, the Government can subvert those protections by the unfettered use of expropriation. When a land owner puts up a fight and tries to stop some unwanted development of his land by developers, the developers and the Government conspire and collude on a regular basis to take land away from the pesky land owner for a pittance. The Government expropriation is designed to send a message to private land owners, do not stand in our way or else, we can and we will take your land, so just give up any fight and do as we want. Big corporations or developers with political connections can make a fortune from developing land for residential or commercial development or by extracting forest, mineral , water or oil resources from privately owned land . Corporations collude with Government to expropriate or pass legislation allowing access to and development of privately owned land without the land owners consent or participation. In Canada an oil company or mining company can simply move in on your land and stake claims on it for exploration and development under protection from Government legislation. Oil companies can extract thousands of barrels of oil from private land which are sold for $100 a barrel. The private land owner may not even be paid any royalties or land rental? It appears that Canadians are afraid of Government and are intimidated by big Corporations. That is why these corporate and Government thugs get away with withholding property rights and abusing the riparian and mineral rights some Canadians do have. It is time for all Canadian land owners to organize and establish land owner Associations in order to lobby for and demand that property rights be enshrined in the Canadian Constitution. Prime Minister Harper promised property rights and was elected on that promise, which he failed to fulfill. In countries which do have property rights, such as the USA, those property rights are frequently undermined by the existence of the power of expropriation by Government. Property rights which do not greatly restrict expropriation are worthless. Fraudulent expropriation by Government can easily occur in order to satisfy some underhanded corporate development plan. If iron clad property rights and serious restrictions against unwarranted, unreasonable or fraudulent expropriation by Government are not enshrined and enforced, private land owners must ensure that politicians who do not support or deliver iron clad property rights do not ever get elected or re-elected in Canada, starting with Stephen Harper and Kathy Dunderdale!

  • Wildrose
    January 31, 2011 - 10:23

    Oil owns this province, so quit your wining hayseed and do as you're told!