Uneasy bedfellows

Ranchers, farmers grow wary of Alberta’s plan to harvest coalbed methane

With the price and demand for natural gas soaring, Alberta is taking its
first cautious steps towards harvesting coalbed methane. As of December 2003,
there were 1,000 wells in the province, 300 of them already exploiting the
controversial new energy source. Many more are in the works, and concerned
landowners across the province are eager for more information about what it
could all mean to them. Coalbed methane (CBM)—or natural gas from coal,
the more politically-correct-sounding name adopted by the Alberta
government—is gas trapped within seams of coal, often saturated with
fresh or saline water. In order to extract it, the water must be pumped away
to depressurize the coal so the gas can be removed. It’s a costly
process, which means CBM projects often don’t become financially viable
until years down the road. But with Alberta’s known reserves of
conventional natural gas predicted to run out within a decade, it’s
clear that new sources of fuel must be tapped to satisfy the insatiable
demand of North American consumers. While CBM exploration is new in Canada,
it’s been going on for more than a decade in the U.S., where it now
accounts for eight per cent of the country’s annual natural gas
production. But this productivity has come at a huge price to landowners and
the environment. In the American Midwest, complaints have ranged from drained
or contaminated wells to faucets that spew flammable methane. Thousands of
wells and roads have scarred vast landscapes, ruined wildlife habitats and
contaminated drinking and irrigation water. Billions of barrels of byproduct
water (often high in sodium, arsenic and other contaminants) are being dumped
on the surface and into rivers. On top of all that, the density of well
placement for CBM is much higher than conventional wells, averaging one every
200 metres, leaving farmers with a bumper crop of the noisy contraptions
dotting their land. Currently, CBM exploration and development in Alberta is
governed by existing rules governing conventional oil and gas, but Don
Bester, a retired rancher from the Rocky Mountain House area, says new
regulations must be put in place to prevent the kind of disaster CBM has
caused down south. “The existing regulations are not fitting,” he
says. “It’s like trying to play a game of cricket with baseball
rules.” Bester is the director of the Butte Action Committee, a group
dedicated to investigating the use and conservation of water by the oil
industry in Alberta; their powerful lobbying was instrumental in getting
Alberta to adopt its Water for Life strategy. He had been watching the impact
CBM exploration had on the Powder River basin in Wyoming and the San Juan
basin in New Mexico, and he knew it would only be a matter of time before
similar projects got going up here. By keeping his ear to the ground, he
became aware of a number of CBM projects within the province before they were
made public. “When this thing first evolved,” he says,
“there was a lot of under-the-table secrecy between both the Alberta
Energy Board and the Department of Energy. It was denied they were even in
existence. They did not want the stigma of coalbed methane, of what happened
in the States. They wanted to get it developed and the plans all laid out
before the public even knew what was going on. The Butte Action Committee was
the one who brought this into the public realm.” By teaming up with
several other like-minded organizations throughout the province, the
committee was able to raise enough money to fly in members of the Powder
River Basin Resource Council and the Oil and Gas Accountability Organization,
two environmental groups fighting CBM in America. They presented horror
stories of what the process had done to the land to a crowd of concerned
landowners and government representatives involved in energy and the
environment. “They didn’t realize the impact it had caused down
in the States,” Bester says. “They had no idea.” Their
efforts succeeded not only in awakening the public to the possible
ramifications of CBM, but they also sent the government scrambling to check
things out for themselves. Realizing they were sitting on a potential
powderkeg, the Alberta Department of Energy created a stakeholders’
committee to look at the impact CBM might have on the air, water and surface
rights of landowners and to make recommendations for changes to current
regulations. Bester is a member of this committee, and their report will be
delivered to the government this November. He hopes by working with the
government, things will improve before it’s too late. “Is [CBM]
going to create a whole bunch of more problems?” Bester asks.
“Yes. Are they solvable? Maybe. If the government listens to the
recommendations from its own advisory committee, I think they will be.”
However, this April they asked for a moratorium on all CBM development
involving the use of freshwater until the stakeholders could deliver their
recommendations. They were denied. While the majority of CBM sites in the
province are considered dry wells, where little water is disturbed, there are
currently four applications for freshwater diversion licenses being reviewed
by the Department of the Environment in relation to CBM. Darin Barter, a
spokesperson for the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board who has been working
on CBM for a year now, says the government has already learned from the
mistakes made in the early days of CBM. Currently, all landowners near CBM
drilling sites must be informed of the development, saline water must be
reinjected into deep storage wells and any freshwater pumped out of aquifers
must be approved by the province. “We’re not going to let what
happened in the States happen here,” Barter says. “It’s
just not going to happen. Right now we have a very strong regulatory
structure in this province and with additional or enhanced regulations
dealing directly with CBM we’re very confident that this is a resource
that can be developed responsibly.” Still, the Klein government has a
history of resisting recommendations limiting the oil and gas industry, the
main engine driving the provincial economy. With estimates of Alberta’s
CBM reserves at 500 trillion cubic feet, even if only 10 per cent of it turns
out to be accessible, there’s a lot at stake. “That’s a lot
of royalties, and I think that’s the only thing that drives Ralph
Klein,” Bester says. “I’ve voted PC for 45 years and I will
never again. Put it that way.” By putting the quick dollars of the oil
and gas industry ahead of the needs of the agricultural community—which
has already weathered the storm of conventional gas exploration, not to
mention the hardships brought on by drought and mad cow disease—Klein
is alienating himself from traditionally conservative farmers.
“Agriculture was here way before the oil and gas industry ever thought
about coming into Alberta, and we’ll be here a long time after,”
says Bester. “We’re asked to be stewards of the land, but if they
won’t accept recommendations from the people who are looking after the
land, then where are we heading? Where are we going to be when all the oil
and gas companies are walking back into the U.S. and leave us with one hell
of a mess to clean up? We’re going to be looking at billions of dollars
to clean up their mess.” V

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