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.
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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