ENVIRONMENT ALBERTA OIL Through the Smokescreen Restoring Public Confidence in CBM by Dr David Swann C oal bed methane – natural gas extracted from coal seams – is not only a relative

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ENVIRONMENT ALBERTA OIL Through the Smokescreen Restoring Public Confidence in CBM by Dr David Swann C oal bed methane – natural gas extracted from coal seams – is not only a relative Powered By Docstoc


Through the Smokescreen:
Restoring Public Confidence in CBM
by Dr. David Swann


oal	bed	methane	–	natural	gas	extracted	from	coal	 seams	–	is	not	only	a	relatively	new	resource	for	 Alberta	but	also	a	potential	source	of	great	wealth	 for	the	province.	But	as	Alberta’s	Environment	Critic,	

Large	tracts	of	sub-surface	rights	are	being	bought	up	by	 companies	eager	to	get	a	piece	of	the	coal	bed	 methane	pie.	

I’ve	discovered	that	many	Albertans	share	my	concern	 that	mining	coal	bed	methane	–	or	CBM	–	could	put	our	 groundwater	supply	at	risk.	During	a	series	of	meetings	with	 farmers,	ranchers	and	other	landowners	conducted	during	 the	last	few	months,	I	found	that	many	concerned	citizens	 want	assurances	from	government	and	industry	that	CBM	 extraction	will	be	conducted	with	a	great	degree	of	care	 for	water,	the	environment,	and	the	traditional	way	of	life	 of	rural	Albertans.	 Ever	since	2000,	when	the	fi rst	test	wells	were	drilled	in	 	 Alberta’s	Horseshoe	Canyon	formation,	the	pace	of	CBM	 drilling	has	increased	from	1000	wells	in	2003	to	the	current	 6000	wells.		Many	more	are	in	the	works,	with	predictions	 that	up	to	50,000	wells	could	be	drilled	in	the	next	decade.	

Public Concerns Expressed
Before	2006,	there	had	been	no	public	hearings	on	CBM	 drilling.	Members	of	the	public,	including	rural	landowners,	 farmers,	municipal	and	environmental	groups,	had	not	 had	a	real	chance	to	voice	their	concerns	in	an	open,	 public	way. Over	the	past	18	months,	the	Offi cial	Opposition	has	 	 asked	many	questions	of	the	Energy	and	Environment	 ministers	about	possible	problems	with	CBM	activity.	This	 year,	landowner	frustration	over	unanswered	questions	to	 both	government	and	industry	about	possible	water	loss	 and	contamination	from	gas	migration	boiled	over	in	 public	view.


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The	fi rst	public	hearing	on	CBM	and	its	impact	on	 	 groundwater,	where	many	of	these	concerns	were	 forcefully	expressed,	was	held	April	3	at	the	Torrington	 Community	Hall.	The	second	public	expression	was	a	press	 conference	held	at	the	provincial	legislature	on	February	 28.	Three	Albertans	–	Dale	Zimmerman,	Jessica	Ernst	and	 Fiona	Lauridsen	–	took	their	concerns	about	CBM	directly	 to	the	government’s	doorstep,	explaining	how	they	all	 experienced	dramatic	changes	to	both	water	quality	and	 quantity	after	CBM	wells	were	drilled	near	their	properties.	 These	Albertans	lost	water	pressure	(in	Dale	Zimmerman’s	 case,	just	24	hours	after	drilling	began),	experienced	 irritating	skin	rashes,	saw	their	livestock	refuse	to	drink	their	 water,	and,	perhaps	most	alarmingly,	discovered	that	new	 gas	contamination	was	substantial	enough	to	actually	 set	their	water	on	fi re.	These	problems	have	forced	some	 	 of	these	landowners	to	purchase,	at	their	own	expense,	 fresh	water	to	replace	the	water	once	supplied	by	their	 now	contaminated	wells.	These	landowners	also	described	 rather	disrespectful	responses	they	received	from	the	 regulators	charged	with	dealing	with	their	concerns. Distressingly,	there	are	widespread	stories	that	some	water	 contamination	complaints	have	been	dealt	with	not	by	 Alberta	Environment	or	the	provincial	Energy	and	Utilities	 Board	(EUB),	but	through	private	deals	with	a	company	 whereby	a	new	well	is	drilled	for	the	owner	and	no	defi nitive	 	 cause	of	the	problem	in	the	water	well	is	ever	identifi ed.	 	 Allegations	of	groundwater	damage	are	complicated	 by	the	fact	that	regulators	have	not	been	monitoring	 groundwater	for	capacity	or	for	methane	and	other	 hydrocarbons	(including	baseline	testing),	making	it	 diffi cult	or	impossible	to	determine	the	extent	to	which	 	 gas	contamination	is	industry-related	or	due	to	problems	 within	the	water	well	itself.	This	realization	has	clearly	 shocked	Albertans	and	contributed	to	a	loss	of	confi dence	 	 in	the	regulators.	It	has	also	created	liabilities	that	must	 be	sorted	out.

Horseshoe	Canyon	Formation.	The	panel,	which	delivered	 presentations	on	CBM	development	and	groundwater,	 consisted	of	offi cials	from	Alberta	Environment,	the	 	 EUB,	Farmer’s	Advocate,	and	the	Canadian	Society	of	 Unconventional	Gas.	The	public	was	then	encouraged	 to	ask	questions,	which	they	did,	often	with	considerable	 passion	and	frustration.	They	also	shared	their	experiences	 with	industry,	landmen,	and	government	offi cials.	 	

What did Albertans Say?
The	town	hall	meetings	were	a	real	eye-opener	for	me.	I	 learned	that	there	are	thousands	of	Albertans	who	are	 extremely	concerned	that	the	province	is	going	ahead	with	 major	development	without	suffi cient	planning,	scientifi c	 	 	 understanding	of	groundwater	or	consultation	with	those	 most	affected	by	the	development.	Many	landowners	 believe	that	CBM	activity	poses	a	threat	to	the	safety	of	 their	groundwater,	to	their	livelihoods,	and	to	their	rural	way	 of	life.	They	also	expressed	a	loss	of	trust	in	the	government’s	 knowledge	and	management	of	groundwater,	as	well	as	its	 ability	to	protect	a	livelihood	already	seriously	threatened	 by	low	commodity	prices,	infl ation,	intermittent	drought,	 	 and	the	BSE	crisis.

As	a	politician,	my	role	in	these	meetings	was	to	listen	 to	Albertans’	perceptions	of	the	effects	of	CBM	drilling	 and	to	determine	what	course	of	action	the	government	 should	take	to	protect	the	public	interest	and	to	restore	 confi dence.	There	is	some	hard	scientifi c	evidence	about	 	 	 groundwater	and	gas	migration	into	groundwater,	but	 much	remains	unknown	(see	“CBM	Fingerprinting	Project,”	 AO	Fall	2006).	There	is	also	a	reluctance	to	admit	that	 scientists	are	uncertain	about	capacity,	fl ows,	connections,	 	 and	locations	of	much	groundwater	in	Alberta.	This	 uncertainty	has	added	both	to	tensions	between	thousands	 of	rural	Albertan	landowners,	government	and	industry	and	 to	a	lack	of	trust	that	needs	to	be	addressed.

Government Responds
To	address	some	of	these	concerns,	the	government	 enacted	new	legislation	this	past	May	requiring	baseline	 water	testing	within	600m	of	any	new	resource	well.	 Another	response	was	the	creation	of	a	four-member	 panel	by	Alberta	Environment	to	visit	roughly	a	dozen	 rural	communities	south	of	Edmonton,	mostly	in	the	

Restoring Confidence in our Resource Management
Three	other	factors	have	also	contributed	to	confl ict	in	 	 resource	development	in	the	province:	the	lack	of	an	 integrated	land-use	plan	that	balances	the	various	 public	and	private	interests;	lack	of	scientifi c	cumulative	 	 impacts	of	development;	and	the	lack	of	meaningful,	 timely	public	consultation	in	land-use	decisions	that	 will	affect	regions	forever.

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The	three	concerns	above	need	to	addressed	over	time	 but,	in	my	view,	several	steps	to	restore	trust	and	to	ensure	 that	this	invaluable	resource	is	developed	with	minimum	risk	 to	our	environment,	including	groundwater,	should	be	 taken	immediately.		 •	 First,	we	need	an	independent	committee	to	investigate	the	 few	dozen	wells	that	have	experienced	dramatic	changes	in	 volume	and/or	quality	in	the	Horseshoe	Canyon	Formation	and	 other	groundwater	related	to	the	6000	CBM	wells	drilled	and	 fractured. •	 Second,	we	need	an	integrated	complaints	process	so	that	all	 complaints	are	handled	in	a	consistent,	transparent	and	timely	 way.	We	cannot	allow	companies	to	provide	new	water	wells	 without	identifying	the	cause	of	problems	in	old	water	wells. •	 Third,	the	government	of	Alberta	must	complete	an	inventory	of	 groundwater	as	quickly	as	possible	to	ensure	that	we	manage	 our	most	precious	resource	wisely.	Development	pressures	and	 climate	change	are	threatening	the	future	of	water	supplies. •	 And	fourth,	a	multi-stakeholder	organization	should	be	 created	to	monitor	and	oversee	the	implementation	of	the	 recommendations	of	the	CBM	Multi-stakeholder	Advisory	 Committee	(MAC). Dr. Swann is an Alberta MLA and the official opposition’s Environment Critic. He practiced as a family physician from 1975 to 1984 and then as a public health consultant from 1988 to 2004. In	my	view,	Albertans	are	rightly	demanding	better	balance	in	our	 economic	and	environmental	decision-making,	better	science	 before	allowing	decisions	to	be	made,	and	better	monitoring	and	 enforcement	of	regulations.	This	is	the	message	that	I	heard	loud	 and	clear	from	Albertans	on	the	CBM	tour.		It’s	a	message	that	 must	not	be	ignored. Albertans	want	CBM	done	judiciously,	with	a	proper	landuse	plan,	scientifi c	analysis	of	the	cumulative	impacts	and	a	 	 suffi cient	public	consultation	process.	Albertans	have	voiced	their	 	 concerns;	government	and	industry	must	respond	in	an	open	and	 meaningful	way,	not	only	for	the	sake	of	the	environment,	but	 because	it’s	good	business.	Only	with	widespread	public	support	 can	the	CBM	industry	reach	its	full	potential.	 AO


A Bright and Sustainable Future
Alberta	has	a	brilliant	future	in	CBM	energy	development	–	if	we	 proceed	with	wisdom	and	responsibility.	Over	the	past	century,	 the	oil	&	gas	industry	has	made	tremendous	contributions	to	the	 standards	and	quality	of	our	lives.	But	it	is	also	true	that	these	 developments	come	with	environmental	and	social	costs.	


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