Ranchers sour on Canadian gas plant

  • A ROUGH RIDE: Mac Main, co-owner of the MX Ranch

    Scott Palmer
  • NOT THE BEST NEIGHBORS: Janet Main herds heifers through the Shell Complex from their pasture to their calving fields

    Robert Kershaw

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

Call the main phone number for the big Shell Canada natural gas processing plant in rural Pincher Creek, and the first thing you hear is an automated greeting that seems to assume you're calling about an environmental crisis:

"Thank you for calling the Shell-Waterton Complex. If you are being affected by our operation, press 3 or hang up and dial our 24-hour emergency number, 627-420 ..."

Mac Main, whose family's MX Ranch borders the gas plant, has lived with that anticipation of crisis since the plant was built about 40 years ago.

He says there's good reason for neighbors of the gas plant and its associated well field to be wary. In his view, emissions and leaks have poisoned groundwater and surface water, fouled the air, caused cows to die mysteriously, sickened people, and hurled slag from a flare stack, starting a fire in one of his hay fields.

"Just about everything you can imagine can happen to you," he says. Worse, the government has done little to protect local ranchers from the impacts, instead kowtowing to the energy companies, he says. "The provincial and federal agencies are scared to step on their toes. So we're left to fight our own battles locally."

Resistance to oil and gas is strong among many ranchers in Alberta. Occasionally, frustration with the government's oversight has even erupted in violence.

One rancher was convicted of murder for gunning down an oilman near Calgary in 1998; a well had been seeping contamination onto his land. A rancher near Edmonton was convicted last year for trying to blow up a gas well. According to the Calgary Herald, he believed its emissions were harming the health of his family and animals.

A get-along government

An industrial operation the size of the Shell complex is bound to have impacts, concedes Laurieanne Lynne, a spokeswoman for Shell Canada. The complex includes about 60 gas wells, several hundred miles of pipelines extending up canyons, and a town-like plant with flare stacks, compressor stations and a mountain of sulfur extracted from the gas to be sold as fertilizer.

But Lynne says the company has improved its technology and safety over the years, and the government has created laws, regulations and processes to address public concerns.

On paper, the government of Alberta has more power over energy development than do state governments in the U.S. The provincial government owns the mineral rights on about 80 percent of the land in the province, leasing rights to companies that apply, and it has some say in developing the other 20 percent. According to the Alberta Department of Energy, there are at least 21 environmental laws, 34 sets of regulations and 84 guidelines for the energy industry's performance in the province, designed to protect health, safety and the environment.

The overall regulatory emphasis is "strongly consultive," which means that companies have to explain up front their plans for new wells, pipelines and plants, then listen to public concerns and, when necessary, adjust their plans. Yet despite the public consultations, "every well that I know of has been granted except one, and that one was under intense public scrutiny," rancher Main says. Lynne agrees it's rare for a proposed well or pipeline to be pulled back by the companies or the government. "Generally, if there is a prospect, they will want to drill it."

For the ranchers and retirees of the sparsely populated Pincher Creek area - a municipal district of roughly a million acres surrounding a town of the same name - one concern is that most of the natural gas is "sour gas," named for the smell of a toxic component, hydrogen sulfide.

Gas in the region runs as high as one-third hydrogen sulfide, and a single breath of air that contains one-tenth of 1 percent hydrogen sulfide (1,000 parts per million) is lethal. Even a few parts per billion in the air can cause nausea, fatigue, dizziness, and sore eyes and throat.

Over the years, sour-gas leaks have occasionally triggered warnings, and even evacuations. Impacts can be hard to document, but one pipeline that corroded and leaked sour gas during the 1990s killed a nearby cow and calf. When people complained, the provincial Energy and Utilities Board, which oversees such safety issues, held a quasi-trial. In a process used for only the most serious incidents, three members of the board formed a tribunal that heard evidence and decided to shut down a stretch of the pipeline for repair.

By provincial law, people who are "directly or adversely" affected can request such hearings. But the process can look political. All eight members of the board are appointed by Alberta's premier, in a province that has gotten wealthy producing about 70 percent of Canada's total oil and gas.

"We have an obligation to produce oil and gas for the North American marketplace, and Alberta takes that obligation very seriously," says Gary Gilbertson, spokesman for the Energy and Utilities Board. Demand for natural gas in particular is rising because it's the fuel of choice for new electricity-generating plants. "We see natural gas production increasing all along the east slope of the Rocky Mountains," Gilbertson says.

The Shell-Waterton Complex in Pincher Creek employs more than a hundred people, pays a ton of local taxes, and has the support of some locals who don't directly profit from it. Bob Jenkins, a retired rancher who recently sold his 3,500-acre spread to the Nature Conservancy, defends the industry: "Yes, they have changed the mountains here - there are some scars. But I believe Mother Nature is a great healer. In the meantime, we need the oil and gas to make the world go round."

Rancher lawsuits Ranchers who believe the consultation system has deserted them can file lawsuits, but there haven't been many legal victories recently. A rancher near Calgary, who had charged in a lawsuit that pollution from gas flares, pits and sumps caused his cattle to stop reproducing, won a court order last year for an oil company to pay him $325,000. It was reportedly the first such court victory for a rancher in 20 years.

Main's family filed suit against Shell a year ago, seeking damages in a case that is still pending. He's the fourth generation on his land, he says, and his ranch now totals 1,280 acres and includes several creeks.

He says air and water pollution from the plant make it impossible to raise his certified organic cattle; wells and springs are poisoned by sulfaline, a byproduct of processing sour gas, and the plume of groundwater contamination stretches five miles.

Many of the problems linger from poor industry practices in the past, such as the unlined waste pits that the company finally retired a few years ago. The company is "doing a better job today than it did 25 years ago," Main says. "But we still have cattle dying." In August, four head "dropped dead in three days" in a field a quarter mile from the plant.

When those cows died, the company checked for leaks and hired a veterinarian to investigate the carcasses, Lynne says. No leaks were found, and the vet determined the cows died of "bovine emphysema" and "acute bovine pulmonary edema," primarily brought on by severe drought that reduced the nutrition in the grass, Lynne says. Shell's investigation "did not attribute it to the sour-gas plant."

Main's family is also involved in the latest local consultation process overseen by the Energy and Utilities Board. The company wants to put in a new sour-gas well about a mile and a half from one of the family's houses. Does Main think the company will get the government OK to go ahead? "Oh, for sure."


Ray Ring is Northern Rockies editor for High Country News.

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