UPDATE: Citizen power succeeds and at the end of April 2014, Goldenkey Oil announced it will not be submitting an application to drill and frack for oil and gas in Lethbridge.
In the autumn of 2013 citizens in Lethbridge mobilized in response to news that a Chinese-backed firm, Goldenkey Oil Company, had been extended mineral rights to frack and drill in territory that includes a ten square mile plot of municipal land hosting several schools, 4,000 homes and 10,000 citizens of urban Lethbridge. One of those schools is the University of Lethbridge where I have been a faculty member since 1990.
The upsurge of citizens’ resistance to urban drilling and fracking reminds me of the water war that engulfed this southern Albertan town of 90,000 people when I first arrived here from Ontario. In 1990 the community went into convulsions when a group, Peigan Indians, who identified themselves as the Lonefighters’ Society, opposed the Alberta government’s raising of the Oldman River Dam just upstream from their Indian reserve. The Lonefighters marked their opposition by using heavy machinery to divert water from the weir directing some of the Oldman River’s flow into the irrigation canal of the Lethbridge North Irrigation District (LNID). The LNID is one of the bastions of the Conservative power base in this notoriously right-wing part of Canada.
The Oldman River Dam
The current controversy over urban fracking in Lethbridge is something akin to the commotion created by the negative response to the Lonefighters’ calling into question the legal legitimacy of the Oldman Dam. Where the Lonefighters’ stand was exploited to generate support for the ruling party, the old status quo so far is being undermined by public responses to the frack attack on West Lethbridge.
In this arid part of Canada, where cactus plants grow amidst the dwindling natural domain of wild grasses, the politics of access to, as well as treatment of, fresh water is especially contentious. Situated on the west bank of the Oldman River just across from Goldenkey’s Penny Project, drilling and fracking on the Blood Tribe reserve is already undermining the quality of Lethbridge’s public water supplies.
The urban frack attack on Lethbridge is but a small part of a massive assault on the quality of public health and the environment throughout Alberta. In a single year applications and approvals for drilling and fracking went up 650%, causing some to characterize the provincial government led by Alison Redford as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Chinese and Texas-based oil and gas sector. A telling indicator of the extent of the conflict-of-interest is that the staff of the Alberta Energy Regulator is paid 100% by the very industry supposedly being regulated.
The floodgates for the deluge of new extractive activity, extending even into urban areas, was opened in part by key provisions hidden amongst the verbiage of the Harper government’s Omnibus Bills, C-38 and C-45. It was this federal legislation that proved to be the catalyst for the Idle No More movement in the autumn of 2012. The so-called Omnibus Bills included provisions reflecting the Harper government’s attempt to withdraw federal constitutional responsibility from inland waters and thereby open the way for further provincialization of procedures for the extraction and transport of natural resources.
The dominant industrial modus operendi currently in Alberta is based on the principle that oil and water mix. Huge quantities of fresh water are being degraded in the dirty production of bitumen, oil, and natural gas. Those conducting the “No Drilling in the City of Lethbridge” campaign, so far at least, have chosen to highlight a number of issues besides the contamination of fresh water. These include the prospect of house prices dropping by about 16%, the possibility that West Lethbridge would have to be evacuated if sour gas is emitted in a blowout, and the dangers posed by the large scale transport of dangerous chemicals and highly flammable cargoes through local neighbourhoods.
The Public and Roman Catholic Schools boards were both fast off the mark to condemn urban fracking in West Lethbridge. The Mayor and City Council made similar stances, pointing out problems in the distribution of powers that preclude them from having a binding say in the decision of whether or not urban fracking takes place. The Lethbridge Real Estate Association added its voice to the naysayers as the number of signatures of those opposed to the Goldenkey project neared 10,000. At the time of this writing, the Board of Governors of the University of Lethbridge held back from coming out against the Goldenkey plan although over sixty faculty members have signed a letter encouraging our school’s directing body to join with the other school boards in banning drilling and fracking in the neighbourhood of schools.
The Lethbridge Chamber of Commerce has been conspicuously absent in opposition to the urban frack attack. In his summary of who has or has not stepped forward to be counted, local public intellectual Al Barnhill commented in the Lethbridge Herald, “Where are the medical people – doctors, nurses, dentists? Other than a handful of responsible health professionals who signed petitions and attended meetings, one might believe their associations don’t care enough about community health to have a leading role in opposing such a risky exploitation as drilling oil wells in residential areas.”
The Larger Context
The swelling opposition to this plan to industrialize the growing and thriving residential settlement in West Lethbridge is part of a worldwide pattern. The well-known British Columbian scholar and pundit, Robin Mathews, has characterized this transnational phenomenon in his exposé of the behind-the-scenes skullduggery deployed to bring about the juridical defeat of Jessica Ernst, the environmental biologist who took the Encana Corporation to court for contaminating her well water in Rosebud Alberta. Mathews writes “All over the globe fracking is fouling drinking water, lowering water tables, and endangering agriculture… All over the globe people are being affected, waking up alarmed, calling for investigation, research, regulation, laws to control fracking.”
In his investigative piece Mathews points out that the original judge appointed to the Ernst case, Justice Barbara Veldhuis, was removed from the matter at an advanced stage in the trial. To Mathews, who attended the legal proceedings, the whole process smacked of “sham, smoke-and-mirrors, fraud.” Judge Veldhuis was promoted mid-trial and sent to the Appeals Court of Alberta when it appeared the jurist had some positive regard for the legal arguments being brought forward on behalf of Ms. Ernst.
Judge Veldhuis was replaced by Chief Justice of the Court of Queen’s Bench, Neil Wittman. Judge Wittman ruled that the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) has no “duty of care” and that this agency cannot be sued by those who are negatively affected by its decisions. A blazing symbol of the extent of conflict-of-interest permeating many aspects of governance in the virtual one-part state of Alberta, 100% of the wages and other costs of the Alberta Energy Regulator are paid by the very industry subject to the AER’s rulings.
Recognition that fracking is dangerous to public health, environmental integrity, and agricultural enterprise is reflected by the fact that this extractive activity has been banned in a number of countries including France, Germany South Africa, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, and Luxenbourg. Fracking has also been prohibited in the Canadian petro-province of Newfoundland and in the urban municipalities of Pittsburgh, Denver and Hamilton Ontario. Similarly, there is intense popular opposition to fracking in many jurisdictions whose governments do officially embrace it— governments like those of New Brunswick, Pennsylvania, Romania, California, and some districts of England. The resort to direct action in these and other jurisdictions demonstrates that some citizens are made to feel so disempowered that the only remaining venue of meaningful opposition to fracking is to throw their bodies in the path of the onslaught.
The limited water resources of arid southwestern Alberta pose the most obvious obstacle to transforming a zone of large-scale agriculture, recreation and education into a gas-rush-boom-and-bust economy marked by the proliferation of many thousands of fracking wells. To draw out the fossil fuel embedded in shale, deep horizontal drilling is followed at every well by the injection of literally millions of gallons of chemical-laced water that is volatile enough to explode open and shatter the existing subsurface geology. This feature of fracking contributes to the increased levels of earthquake activity that has been observed in many jurisdictions where the landscape has been subjected to this very intense form of industrial violence.
The rapid injection of these millions of gallons of supercharged chemical can be repeated up to 18 times for each well. Some of the used fracking brew will be retrieved at the wellheads to be hauled away for use at other sites and eventually transported to toxic waste dumps. Where are such dumps to be located? Who will operate them? Where will the makers of the Alberta Bakken play find the water they need? Will the fracking companies be charged for the true commercial value of fresh water or will they be subsidized at the expense of taxpayers, public health, and environmental integrity? What fresh water will be left for other users? Will there be any fresh pure water available any more once southern Alberta is fracked out? Such basic questions are especially pertinent in a region where irrigation farming and very large feedlots are already overtaxing the limited run-off coming from eastern slopes of the Rockies, already an area where glaciers are quickly shrinking.
The dangers of transporting poisonous and highly flammable industrial products to and from fracking wells and then to refineries and markets was dramatically illustrated last summer by the lethal train disaster at Lac-Mégantic Quebec. The worst explosions involved train cars carrying product from the Bakken shale formations in North Dakota. As The Globe and Mail reported in December of 2013, “Bakken oil is potentially more hazardous than conventional crude because it is lighter and contains a number of gases and compounds, such as methane and propane, that can make it more corrosive and volatile.”
Let me conclude by picturing Lethbridge’s intake pipe to the water treatment plant on the Oldman River. This aquatic intake is already bringing into our community’s tap water toxins used in the industrial chemistry of extracting oil and gas from upstream wells, including those presently operating on the nearby Blood Tribe reserve. How many in the Lethbridge area have already determined that our tap water is not to be trusted as a safe source for drinking, bathing, and the hydrogenation of crops and domesticated animals? What would be the consequences for our tap water and public health of expanding the number of fracking wells in our local watershed to hundreds or even thousands of times the present number?
As citizens push for a ban on urban fracking in Lethbridge, we need to begin by demanding a moratorium on all future fracking projects in southwestern Alberta until the current inhabitants are given a full accounting of what has already been done and of plans being made for oil and gas exploration and exploitation in our region. We need to be attentive to preserving what is left of precious and dwindling fresh water supplies, an imperiled resource essential to the renewal of all life on earth.
Anthony Hall is Professor of Globalization Studies at University of Lethbridge in Alberta.
FMI go to www.nodrillinglethbridge.ca, www.klew.org or No Drilling In Lethbridge on Facebook.
Photo Credit: Trevor Page