This is my first environmental column for the CSEG Recorder as I take over duties from Dick Arndt. Before beginning this month's subject of drilling in the Eastern Slopes, I would like to give you a brief profile of my background. I am a biologist by training and for the past 15 years I have worked as a wildlife consultant and specialist in environmental impact assessment. I have had the great fortune to work throughout Alberta, Saskatchewan, British Columbia and the North, as well as many countries around the world. I have worked on both sides of the conservation and development debate. I have seen lands spared from development and I have walked across ground knowing only too well that impending change was coming. My views are those of a conservationist, supporting wise resource development and those of a protectionist, supporting maintenance of ecological integrity. We cannot protect all lands just as much as we cannot develop all lands. To me we must seek a balance that recognizes both must exist and be done in a way that neither is compromised.
This months column, "To Drill or Not to Drill - That is the Question" deals with the hotly debated subject of oil and gas developments in the Eastern Slopes of Alberta. These lands stretch along the eastern sides of the Rocky Mountains from Grande Prairie south to the Montana border. They have a long history of protection, beginning with the establishment of the Rocky Mountains National Forest in 1911. Portions of the Eastern Slopes were once part of the National Parks system. With transfer of resources from the federal to provincial government in 1930, much of the eastern slopes were opened up for the extraction of timber, minerals and hydrocarbons. Lands were also set aside for protection. Willmore Wilderness Park was established in 1959 and in 1971, the White Goat, Siffleur and Ghost Wilderness Areas were created. Public concern over development in the Eastern Slopes led to hearings in 1973 culminating in the release of the Policy for Resource Management of the Eastern Slopes in 1977. This policy established 8 classes from prime protection to intensive development zones.
The government of Alberta recently opened up new mineral leases for hydrocarbon extraction south of Highway I. These leases were reviewed by the Crown Mineral Dispositions Review Committee, including a review of environmental concerns, prior to posting and sale by Alberta Energy. In an effort to guide both operators and the public as to what information is needed for development applications, the ERCB released Information Letter IL 93-9 in December 1993. IL 93-9 establishes the need for early and thorough public consultation, states that operators should consider their exploratory well application in light of later full pool development, provides guidelines on the level of detail required for environmental and socio-economic assessment and encourages operators to work together to reduce impacts and share environmental information.
To date two exploratory well projects have come forward to the application stage - the Husky/Rigel Moose Mountain Project west of Bragg Creek and the Amoco Hunter Creek project in the Whaleback area near the Oldman River in southern Alberta. Both have gone to public hearings before the Energy Resources Conservation Board. Husky received permission to drill on Moose Mountain, Amoco was denied application to drill in the Whaleback. Other projects such as the Rigel/Norcen Sheep River project are in progress with no application date set.
Public concerns raised during the application phase have shown that drilling in the Eastern Slopes is not going to be easy. It raises the point that an alternative process to confrontation must be developed in order to avoid the problems that have plagued B.C.'s forest industry. In an effort to consider other approaches, the Eastern Slopes Energy and Environment Committee (ESEE) was formed in the spring of 1993. Consisting of representatives from the oil and gas industry, regulators and environmental organizations, ESEE has developed a draft protection framework which includes a network of protected cores (where oil and gas is not allowed), surrounding buffer zones (where drilling may be allowed) and connecting corridors (allowing for movement of species between protected areas).
Final direction, policy and law regarding where to drill and not to drill resides with the Alberta Government. Part of the problem lies with the fact that Alberta Energy, the government department that initiates the sale of leases, is not responsible for their final approval. Following the purchase of the mineral lease from Alberta Energy, the applicant must receive permission from Alberta Environmental Protection to obtain surface leases for construction of the wellsite and access road. The energy company then submits an application to drill an exploratory well to the Energy Resources Conservation Board and Board members make the final decision. The only time the public has an opportunity to comment in the entire process is at the ERCB hearing stage.
The process is thus set for confrontation. Government representatives have not been allowed to give evidence at ERCB hearings. The fact that the applicant has already spent large sums of money to purchase the subsurface lease and has received approval from Environmental Protection for the surface lease, diminishes public credibility over the openness of the process and that public comment can make a difference to the decision.
Clearly the process of mineral lease approval has to change in Alberta. That is what ESEE is trying to develop consensus on - where to drill and where not to drill. Here are some suggestions I have to move the process ahead:
- we must ensure that existing protected lands are off limits to oil and gas activity. For example, oil and gas exploration can still be permitted in Willmore Wilderness Park under existing legislation. This should be amended to exclude oil and gas from Willmore as it is from other Wilderness areas;
- we need to develop a better process for the sale of mineral leases. If ESEE can develop consensus on what lands should be protected in the Eastern Slopes and what areas can be opened up to oil and gas development, then mineral sales should be restricted only to these latter lands. Public comment must be allowed in the process;
- oil and gas proponents should ensure they adopt a proactive consultation process that identifies concerns from an early point to avoid later confrontation;
- we need a commitment to dissemination of environmental information. Too often proponents are forced to collect their own environmental data - often this is not available to their competitors. The Alberta government should take a lead in establishing a provincial database of environmental information to which oil and gas companies can contribute funding support.
Finally, there is the bigger issue of how do we deal with the cumulative effect of human developments. Oil and gas is not the only industrial activity to occur in the Eastern Slopes. Mining and forestry are not regulated to the extent that oil and gas is. Recreation, grazing, agriculture and increasing urbanization as city dwellers seek life in the country also add to the pressure on wildlands in the Eastern Slopes. This bit by bit fragmentation of the landscape reduces its capacity to support species and leads to eventual loss of ecological integrity. As Albertans, we are all guilty. We want to drive our cars, more and more we seek nature and outdoor experiences and yet we value wilderness for wilderness' sake. Can we have it all? Clearly the answer is no, we cannot. Multiple use in the past eventually leads to multiple problems. In an ever shrinking world, we must ensure the future survival of our wildlands while protecting our economic future. This will require setting lands aside free from all development, including intrusion by even ourselves. In turn, environmental organizations must ensure that development can proceed where deemed to be environmentally acceptable.