Activists fight an uphill battle against a gas boom along Canada's Rocky Mountain Front
Note: a sidebar article accompanies this story under the headline "Ranchers sour on Canadian gas plant."
Off in the foreboding clouds of another storm, the snowy peaks of Glacier National Park rise above the invisible line of the 49th parallel, reminding us how close - and yet far away - we are from the United States of America.
It's early spring, and for the last hour, we've been fishtailing on dirt roads hard-packed with black ice, just beyond the northern boundary of Waterton Lakes National Park - Glacier's sister preserve in Canada. We're feeling our way through the Castle-Crown wildlands complex in southern Alberta, headed west toward the border of British Columbia on the Continental Divide.
Mike Sawyer, a Canadian environmental activist, is behind the wheel, and he's off on an entertaining rant about how grateful Americans should be for their environmental laws and system of government.
"Canadians take great pride in reminding ourselves that we are different from you," says Sawyer, a 42-year-old consultant for the Castle-Crown Wilderness Coalition. "Both of our nations evolved from British ancestry. But when you came to the continent, you rose up and rebelled. We said we quite like having the Queen Mother take care of us. We like to think of ourselves as being much more polite and civil than you Americans.
"As a result," Sawyer continues, "we're a culture that is less distrustful of large corporations, and we have a natural predisposition to support our benevolent government, to believe it will look after us. This sets the context for everything you see today in southwest Canada."
What we see, as Sawyer blithely wheels around one hairpin turn after another, is a series of side roads, heading up virtually every breathtaking valley. Each leads to a natural gas well pad or logging clear-cut, an off-road vehicle trail or an old mine.
Though this rugged scarp of the Rocky Mountains rising from the high plains still holds some of the greatest diversity of plants and animals in North America, some scientists say its ecological fabric is starting to fray. For the past half century, the Castle, as it is called, has felt the ever-tightening grip of industrialization. The last decade's energy boom has accelerated development, as oil and gas companies have drained underground reservoirs in the Great Plains of Western Canada and started working their way up into the mountains.
Sawyer and a handful of activists in this province of 3 million people hope to slow the boom and protect the remaining roadless areas, considered by biologists to be a crucial vertebra in the backbone of the Rockies. They even dream of permanent wilderness status for the area. But they face a powerful oil and gas industry that is pumping money in unprecedented quantities into Alberta's economy, and a legal and political system that offers few footholds for citizens.
Finally, most seriously, Sawyer says, Canadians are complacent about the demise of this spectacular landscape.
"It's almost like we've had a collective lobotomy," he says. "All the aggressiveness has been bred out of us."
Sawyer doesn't mean that Canadians don't care about their Rocky Mountains. The country's magnificent national parks - Waterton Lakes, Banff and Jasper in Alberta - show that they do. But it is the extensive lands between the federally managed parks that have activists like Sawyer worried.
These "Crown Lands," overseen by the fiercely anti-federal provincial governments, come closest to U.S. state lands. Most Crown Lands are only subject to provincial laws and are managed to generate revenue. Different provincial boards manage the various activities, including logging, oil and gas drilling, development and recreation. Board members are appointed by the ruling party, and, according to Sawyer, often work in the industry they regulate.
The Castle Region is a diverse landscape that includes shortgrass prairie in the east and lake-studded montane forests in the west. Overall, it's slightly larger than Yellowstone National Park and is almost entirely Crown Land.
At one time, though, it seemed destined to become part of an immense, federally owned and protected landscape. Between 1914 and 1922, the Castle was part of Waterton Lakes National Park. After that, to accommodate developers and hunters, the federal government designated it as a provincial game preserve. Then, in 1954, as the post-World War II economic boom steamed onward, the province officially opened the Castle to development and natural-resource extraction that, except for one brief burp, has continued until today.
In 1993, the government announced that it would set aside the bulk of the Castle as a wildlife reserve as a condition for the approval of a ski resort expansion. But a collaborative group set up by the government to come up with a management plan for the new reserve couldn't come to agreement, and the deal fell through.
Multiple use brought intensive logging and more than 100 oil and gas wells, and thousands of miles of roads to service them. The roads, in turn, have spurred a huge increase in motorized recreation, Sawyer says: "They all feed on each other."
Though little timber harvesting is now occurring in the Castle, activists expect it to increase when the provincial government approves a new 20-year timber plan in 2005. The biggest pressure, though, is coming from the oil and gas industry, which can foresee the end of the reserves in the privately owned prairies to the east. Seven new gas wells have gone into the Castle so far this year, with more in the works.
"You might say that we're taking an upgrading step," says Roger Creasey, a staff scientist with the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board, which coordinates the permitting process for new wells. "We're not necessarily going into areas that are off-limits, but development is progressing into previously undeveloped areas. We're seeing that right now."
The energy industry struts with a confident swagger across Alberta, and for good reason. The entire western half of the province straddles what is known as "the Overthrust Belt," a geologic formation that extends into the Rocky Mountain Front of the U.S. It is endowed with untapped trillions of cubic feet of natural gas, billions of barrels of oil, vast deposits of oil sands in the Mackenzie Delta north of Alberta, and gigantic seams of coal.
All told, Alberta and eastern British Columbia have more BTUs than the Persian Gulf. And to their south is a country with a huge energy appetite. Canada provides the U.S. with about 15 percent of its oil and gas needs, according to a recent New York Times article. Alberta alone exports 2.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas a year to the U.S., as well as 900,000 barrels of oil a day.
Even before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., U.S. President George W. Bush had been in talks with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien about decreasing U.S. dependence on fuel from the Middle East. Alberta figures prominently in the framework of a new North American energy policy, says David Luff, spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
Already the production is massive. Energy companies drilled 7,281 new gas wells in Alberta last year, an all-time record, up 40 percent from the year before, according to the province's Ministry of Energy. Energy development infrastructure in the province now includes at least 35,000 active gas wells, 37,500 active oil wells, 93,000 capped or abandoned wells, about 150,000 miles of gas and oil pipelines, and 703 processing plants that handle either gas, oil sands or crude oil.
"There's this great glob of activity," says Sawyer, as we pull into the town of Turner Valley, which lies northeast of the Castles, some 30 miles from the capital city of Calgary. The oil derrick has been a civic icon here ever since a Texas-style oil boom started in the late 1930s. Outside of town is a local park called Hell's Half Acre, the site of the province's first oil refinery, which has had a flame burning on sour gas leaking from the ground for 60 years.
Sawyer, who spent two years in the early 1990s as an oil and gas consultant for the provincial government, tells me that shortly after the company donated this site to the province for a cultural park, health officials discovered the ground was contaminated. "Where else would you get a company with a $1 billion liability giving away its burden as a gift to the people?" he asks.
Though the oil and gas industry has helped power Alberta's economy for decades, it has become a true powerhouse in the last several years. Last year, as blackouts started rolling across California and the price of natural gas rose to record heights, Alberta hit the jackpot. The province projects it will earn $10.3 billion from leases and royalties this year, generating a $7 billion surplus. Applying $5.6 billion to debt repayment, Alberta expects to cut its IOUs in half this year.
Albertans have reasons to be loyal to the industry, even beyond the huge employment and tax base.
The provincial government has recently promised rebate programs for last winter and spring to help consumers pay rising natural gas and electricity bills; the rebate was estimated to average $1,680 (Canadian) per household.
"The energy industry affects the lives of all Albertans," says Murray Smith, the minister of Energy. "It means we in Alberta have the lowest taxes, the strongest economy and the highest economic growth in Canada."
Riding the boom is Premier of Alberta Ralph Klein, Progressive Conservative Party leader, former television personality and mayor of Calgary. This spring, Klein was easily elected to a third term.
"We are open for business," says provincial energy regulator Roger Creasey. "During the decade of the 1990s, we have been building a boom. In the last two years we've set drilling records. We're pretty excited about the level of business."
But Creasey says the government is concerned about proceeding too hastily. "What a lot of us want to do is ensure we don't lose quality in getting there."
Wildlife in retreat
Conservationists say quality is already being lost in the Castle, especially in terms of wildlife habitat. The range is the northernmost extension of the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem, which extends from the Crowsnest Pass in Alberta and British Columbia to the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wilderness areas south of Glacier National Park in Montana. It is a crucial north-south link for North American wildlife, says Arlin Hackman, vice president of World Wildlife Fund-Canada. That includes not only grizzly bears and wolves, but a number of other transborder species, including wolverine, lynx, woodland caribou, bull trout, and redband trout - all species that are either federally protected in the U.S. or candidates for listing.
Fragmentation of habitat and liberal hunting laws have turned the Castle into a dangerous place for wildlife, says Brian Horejsi, an independent biologist specializing in grizzly bears. Recently, intense scrutiny of deforestation and road-building in British Columbia prompted the premier there to declare a three-year ban on all grizzly hunting. Yet in Alberta, where only 500 to 700 grizzlies exist in the whole province, Horejsi says, "You can still go out and buy a hunting license, go into the Castle and shoot a grizzly."
It's an even grimmer tale for wolves, which can be legally shot year-round. During the mid-1990s, as many as 44 of an estimated regional border wolf population of 50 to 60 were killed within 14 months. Last summer, two wolves were sighted in Waterton and within weeks one was shot just outside the park.
Louisa Willcox, a Bozeman, Mont.-based activist with the Sierra Club, says it's not uncommon for bears and wolves to travel from Montana to the Castle in a manner of days, only to be shot. "Areas of southern Alberta and British Columbia have represented a bloodbath for U.S. bears and wolves," says Willcox.
"Most Americans look to Canada as this incredible reservoir of wildlife that will be a reliable source of animals forever, but that's proving not necessarily to be the case," says Kevin van Tighem, a conservation biologist with Parks Canada, the federal agency that manages parks in the country. "In fact, the irony is we in Canada may need animals from the U.S. to bolster our chronically depleted populations. The long-term prognosis is not good."
Looking for a foothold
Slowing the gas boom doesn't look likely, either, in the short term, according to Mike Judd, a horse packer and outfitter who has lived in the Castle's mountains all his life. Judd's house lies near a sour-gas well operated by Shell Canada, southern Alberta's biggest operator. It is visible from their driveway as we pull in. "Do you smell the sour gas?" Judd asks with a smile. "Industry will tell you it's the smell of money."
Sour gas contains hydrogen sulfide, a natural compound that must be processed out before the gas can be sold on the commercial market. Hydrogen sulfide released from gas wells in Wyoming has been blamed for the death of deer and other game animals. Over the past few years, sour-gas leaks have forced Judd and his neighbors from their home on more than one occasion. They sometimes encounter oil engineers wearing gas masks while drilling a new hole or maintaining an existing site.
"We worry about our health, sure, but what's breaking our heart is what's happening to the land," Judd says. "Worse than any individual well or clear-cut on Crown Land or subdivision on private land, ecologically speaking, is the infrastructure that comes with it, the cumulative effects of roads and trucks and noise and activity."
Industry doesn't take kindly to defiance, Judd says. A few years ago, he and a few friends were threatened with a lawsuit from Shell Canada for participating in a blockade to stop the company from drilling two sour-gas wells on nearby Prairie Bluff. The area is critical habitat for bighorn sheep, yet the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board approved the area for drilling.
The action against Judd and friends was what's often called a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) suit. A court ruled that the protesters could be liable for $100,000 each. Judd says it was intended as a warning to citizens that if they decide to take a stand, they may find themselves facing an army of corporate attorneys. In this case, it worked: Judd agreed to leave the area, and Shell decided not to pursue its lawsuit.
"We have no history of civil disobedience in Alberta as they do in southern B.C. around Vancouver," Sawyer adds. There, activists have engaged in tree-sitting demonstrations and boycotts to protest the cutting of old-growth forests. "Here, the police will use immediate and unkind means on citizens who step out of line. You have to remember Alberta is the most politically and socially conservative province in Canada."
Traditional approaches don't work, either. Sawyer says activists like Judd have tried to get the provincial energy regulators to hold public hearings on drilling proposals. But time and again the province has turned them down, claiming that the law only requires a public hearing if the affected parties can prove they will lose money as a result of the drilling.
When the government does hear citizen complaints, it often sets up stakeholder groups to resolve differences. "We believe in a lot of collaboration and holding meetings in the Canadian way to pound out consensus," says Creasey with the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board. "For those who accept compromise, there is some maneuvering room."
But activists say that consensus almost never results in a proposal being denied.
Legal remedies are also hard to come by. Canada has no national-level equivalents to American environmental laws, such as the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act, though conservationists across the country are now pushing hard for a Canadian endangered species act. And the provincial laws governing land use are weak, says Judd.
"Every one of our provincial laws says that administrators, which ultimately means the premier, can exercise discretion in deciding the fate of land-use disputes," Judd says. "What it really amounts to is a dictatorship. Given the nature of local economic stakeholders, it's not in the political interest to support conservation."
Ray Rasker, a former Canadian citizen and a resource economist with the Sonoran Institute in Bozeman, Mont., a college town of 28,000 people near Yellowstone National Park, says few American environmentalists realize what Canadian activists face: "In a town like Bozeman there are now between 100 to 120 full-time paid environmentalists. In all of Alberta there is not more than 20," he says. "It means that industry has the run of the place and it calls the shots."
A couple of years ago, Judd got a stark reminder of the difference between Canadian and American conservation politics when Gloria Flora, then supervisor of Montana's Lewis and Clark National Forest, paid a visit. She wanted to see what oil and gas development along the Rocky Mountain Front in Alberta looked like before deciding what type of development should be allowed on Montana's Front. Judd took her to the mountains outside the town of Pincher Creek. There, gas pads dot the landscape. They feed a Shell Canada refinery on the edge of Waterton Park.
The visit made an impression. A few months later, after receiving comments from across America and using the National Environmental Policy Act to weigh the benefits of development vs. leaving the mountains of Montana alone, Flora set the Front off-limits to oil and gas drilling.
"Gloria Flora said, 'I don't want the Front to look like this and the American people don't want the Front to look like this,' " says Judd. Flora's decision is being reviewed by the Bush administration (HCN, 6/4/01: Enery plan eyes the Rockies).
Prospects for change
Officials in the Canadian oil and gas industry say objections have not fallen on deaf ears. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), which has 160 member companies that cumulatively account for 95 percent of the total oil and gas production in Canada, has funded two grizzly bear research projects (including one carried out by noted bear expert Steven Herrero, professor emeritus at the University of Calgary).
CAPP spokesman David Luff says environmentalists need to recognize that impacts are ephemeral, lasting 20 to 30 years, and then wildlands can be restored. "Our industry is there for a short period, although I recognize there will be lots of debates about whether 20 to 30 years is short," he says.
Luff says new innovations, such as directional drilling and clustering of wells to minimize impact, may influence government decisions about which lands it wants open to drilling. While some areas in the mountains likely would be targeted for development, he says, others now open to leasing might be set aside for wildlife.
"I would actually say there is a lot of common ground for what Michael (Sawyer) is interested in and trying to achieve," says Luff. "He is concerned about cumulative effects and thresholds and targets, and so are we. There are some issues that clearly we will debate and be at opposite ends."
Sawyer says so much habitat has been degraded in the Castle that compromise is unacceptable. But that's not a view held by all Canadian conservationists.
Fifth-generation Albertan Harvey Locke, an environmental attorney who founded the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Campaign, an umbrella organization working to protect wildlands in the U.S. and Canadian Rocky Mountains, says it is not too late to save the Castle from overdevelopment (HCN, 11/10/97: Y2Y: A vast concept gets a hearing).
"The Castle is bumped and bruised, but not maimed," says Locke, who now works for the Kendall Foundation in Boston, which helps fund several Canadian conservation groups.
Locke says any attempt by the industry to drill deep in the Castle is socially risky. "There's no question the oil and gas industry wields all kinds of power, except that it's being muted by the love of Canadians for the mountains," Locke says.
There are some signs that the country's passion for wildlands is making a difference. This spring in central Alberta, the Energy and Utilities Board denied a proposed sour-gas drilling project, saying that Shell Canada's operations plan would not adequately safeguard public health. It was a rare event that conservationists say was catalyzed by national publicity from renowned Canadian conservationist David Suzuki.
And this summer, the Albertan government created three new provincial parks in the Rockies, totalling 200,000 acres.
"These areas were not protected because the government is green," says Locke, "but because the people wanted it."
Unlike the Castle, the new parks lie within a stone's throw of populous Calgary. Locke says that more people will need to become aware of the beauty of - and the threats to - the Castle before the government takes action to protect it, but it can happen.
"I remain hopeful. Unlike Mike Sawyer and Mike Judd, I see the glass as being half-full instead of half-empty," he says.
Broadening the battle
Ultimately, protection for the Castle may require more support from the national government in Ottawa and from conservationists in the U.S. Last year, Environment Minister David Anderson introduced a Species At Risk Act that could be a new tool to protect Canadian wildlife. Though many Canadian scientists and conservationists have long backed such a measure, there isn't much support for SARA as written; among other problems, it would apply only to federal lands, which comprise just 10 percent of the Canadian land base.
"It's a piece of Novocain doing nothing to repair the problem," David Schindler, an ecologist at the University of Alberta, told the Canadian press in September. He and more than 1,000 other scientists sent a letter criticizing the bill to Prime Minister ChrZtien.
Sawyer says the SARA battle shows how strong the provinces are and how difficult it will be to move them. For years, Canadian conservationists have relied heavily on public relations campaigns to advance their cause. He'd like to see Canadian environmental groups and the foundations that back them adopt an aggressive strategy that includes applying pressure through the marketplace and, where possible, more lawsuits.
One place where Canadian activists could make a difference, he says, is in the ongoing negotiations over the U.S.-Canada Softwood Lumber Agreement, which has allowed cheap, government-subsidized Canadian timber to flood the U.S. market (HCN, 3/26/01: U.S. mills fall under Canadian ax). The Castle-Crown Wilderness Coalition has joined U.S. timber companies and environmentalists in calling for a new agreement that levels the playing field.
Both Sawyer and Locke agree on the need to enlist the help of their counterparts to the south.
"The Castle deserves a higher profile in the U.S," says Locke. "It is part of a shared ecosystem and its development is being driven by U.S. demand for natural resources. If anything, U.S. interest in the Castle may be coming too late."
Or, as the always blunt Mike Sawyer says, "Canadians need to take an American perpsective on this fight. There's hundreds of examples of groups in the U.S. digging in their heels and using whatever tools they have available. That's what we need to do."
Todd Wilkinson writes from Bozeman, Montana. HCN editor Paul Larmer contributed to this story.
YOU CAN CONTACT ...
- Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, 403/232-6686, www.cpawscalgary.org;
- Alberta Energy and Utilities Board, 403/297-8311, www.eub.gov.ab.ca;
- Castle Crown Wilderness Coalition, 403/627-5059, www.ccwc.ab.ca;
- Mike Sawyer, 403/270-3455;
- Mike Judd, 403/627-2949.
Copyright © 2001 HCN and Todd Wilkinson