Conflict in Canada — Water Rights, Oil Rights
|May 29, 2002||Posted by Staff under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
Natural Resource Trouble in Alberta, Canada
Canada Conflict — Water Shortage versus Land Owners versus Petroleum Profits?
We have received an anonymous copy of what appears to be a radio broadcast by someone named Margo McDiarmid. Although unsure of the source, we found it interesting and share parts of the text here.
by “Margo McDiarmid”
Water is one of Canada’s greatest resources and in recent years, one of its greatest concerns. In Alberta, the oil industry has an insatiable thirst for water. But the water reserves are drying up and ranchers are saying enough is enough.
Alberta is finally emerging from a long dry winter. But there’s not much of a welcome in a land gasping for water. Three years of record dry are taking their toll in in the province. Towns are already rationing water. Reservoirs normally full of water are running dry.
This reservoir near Lethbridge usually has spring run off from the Rocky Mountains. This year, you can walk right across without getting your feet wet. The shortage is causing tempers to heat up in the spring sun. There’s an old saying, whisky’s for drinking, water’s for fighting. It is attributed to Mark Twain but it could have been written in bone dry Alberta today.
Water has always been a touchy topic in Alberta, but now there’s rising frustration over who uses it and just how much they’re taking.
Don Bester owns a family-run cattle operation near Caroline, about 100 kilometres northwest of Calgary. He waters his cattle very carefully to conserve water because in spite of the late spring snowfall on the ground, there’s very little moisture underneath.
Bester and his neighbours have been trying to hang on to their cattle waiting out these dry years, hoping each spring will bring relief from the rising costs of raising food. But it can’t go on much longer.
“We’re already looking at $100 bale of hay because of the scarcity of hay,” says Bester. “Now the economics aren’t there to be buying $100 bales.”
It’s making rural land owners take a hard look at their neighbours. They also use fresh water – billions of litres of it.
They get it from the same rivers and underground aquifers that farmers and even towns and cities use. The oil companies force the water down into the reservoirs. The water creates pressure to force the oil up to the surface. They call it water flood injection. A rough rule of thumb is it takes a barrel of water to get a barrel of oil.
Companies also use fresh water to make steam to force petroleum out of the oil sands and to make mud for drilling. There are no clear numbers on how much the industry actually uses but last year it had permits for more than 278 billion litres of fresh water. That’s more water than is used every year by three of Alberta’s largest cities, and the companies get their water for free.
“This is just a complete waste of water,” says Bester. “We’re seeing towns to the east of us that are running out of water. We’re seeing our countryside dry up. Dug outs and river’s levels going down. Let’s stop and take a look at what we’re doing.”
Don Bester heads a group called the Butte Action Committee, a collection of about 100 land owners and farmers. For the last decade, they fought oil companies that want to use fresh water for free. The drier it gets, the more members the group gets.
The committee’s latest battle is with Corsair, a small oil company that owns several dozen wells in the Caroline area. He has permission from a provincial energy board to use up to a million litres of fresh water a day over the next 30 years from the North Saskatchewan River [for free]. The Butte Action Committee is trying to appeal it.
The project is a big deal for Corsair President Ray Smith and his partners. It’s their main investment. Pumping water into their wells will increase by two to three times the amount of oil they can get out of the ground.
“We have clearly determined that we can maximize the recovery of the reserves owned by all Albertans if we inject water into the pool as compared to another fluid,” says Smith.
“It all comes down to economics with them as well,” says Bester. “They say, ‘Oh, we need the water to produce oil.’ Well we need the water for our cattle. We need water to feed people.”
In southeastern Alberta, very little is growing this year. An area around Medicine Hat has been declared a drought disaster zone. The soil is like powder. Wells have run dry. Les Babcock’s job is to find what little water there is. He owns a well drilling company.
“We have calls in almost every day now where people say this is really urgent. ‘Things are getting really serious here. You’ve got to come, you know, right away,’” says Babcock.
Les Babcock has never seen conditions like those he is finding on his hunt for water where 30 metres down there’s still nothing.
“The earth is so dry we would be down 60 feet and the earth is dry and cracked down there,” says Babcock. “And our own water we’re pumping down would come up out of the ground 40 feet away through cracks in the dry earth. That tells us that the ground is extremely dry.”
“It’s very critical, very political and very emotional,” says Stazinski. “The competition for water is here and we need to just start dealing with it. And it’s not going to be easy. There are going to be winners and losers here.”
That’s starting to sink in and make people mad. At public water meetings this winter, a lot of fingers were pointed at the oil and gas industry.
“The oil and gas industry is a very powerful lobby in Alberta and if the government starts poking around in their industry, it’s not going to be well received,” says Stazinski. “So I’m concerned that this is not a real serious review because we’re not going to look at the real issue.”
Alberta’s government gets almost all of its industrial revenue from oil and gas. It may be one reason why environment minister Lorne Taylor won’t single it out.
“No, nobody’s firmly in my sights, no more than you turning on the tap in Edmonton are firmly in my sights,” says Taylor. “What we have to do is come forward with a rational strategy that is going to be seen as rational by most of Alberta and most of Alberta industry and most of the Alberta public. We’re not going to just pick on one industry.”
Don Bester spent 30 years in the oil business before he took up farming. He says the industry doesn’t just use water, it takes it right out of the ecosystem because when they force fresh water into underground oil reservoirs, it stays in deep pools for thousands of years. It’s gone from the water cycle.”
“That water cycle keeps cycling this water that we have got throughout the cycle. It evaporates. It rains. It evaporates. It rains. But if you remove it, it’s gone,” says Bester. “We don’t know the effect of what we’ve been doing.”
Companies like Corsair say the amount of water they use is tiny compared to what’s out there. Corsair president Ray Smith believes Alberta’s prosperity comes with a price.
“We enjoy certain standard of living, a part of which is generated from the revenues of oil and gas and sales of leases,” says Smith. “So for us to not optimize that value is, we don’t think is in the best interest of Albertans and neither does the government.”
Ray Smith uses a map to make his point that hundreds of other oil companies all use water in his area without any effect on the environment. “None of these land owners that are on these properties have seen a significant drop in water level in this particular part of the province,” says Smith. “There’s other arid parts of the province where it’s a significant problem. Not in this particular area.”
He says it is a water resources management issue that’s faced by the government, not by Corsair exploration.
But some companies take a different approach. The oil giant Conoco is one of them. When it drilled wells near Eckville, north of Calgary, the Butte Action Committee asked it to cut down on fresh water. Conoco spokesman Peter Hunt says it wasn’t that hard.
“We were actually able to reduce our usage of fresh water by 10 per cent,” says Hunt. “We’ve been able to withdraw the application that we’ve been planning to make for more water. And also we started to be able to do some of what we call produced water, which is water that comes out of the ground along with the oil. You separate it out and you use that to inject into the reservoir rather than the fresh water that you were planning to use.”
Oil companies are also trying to use salt water that comes from deeper in the ground, although it’s more expensive. And they’re experimenting with extracting oil using carbon dioxide pumped up from U.S. factories. The Alberta government is helping to pay for that project.
Not many studies looking at the link between the oil industry and dropping water levels seem to get funding.
Brian Stazinski wonders if the government has a real handle on what’s going on. “You can live without oil but you can’t live without water.”
“I asked a really pointed question about how much water is the oil and gas industry using in Alberta and the report I got back is we don’t know,” says Stazinski. “We can give you a list of the permits or licenses that are out there but we do not know what is being used by the oil and gas industry. Well, that means no monitoring, no enforcement, no checking up on the oil and gas industry. They can do what they want.”
Alberta’s water conditions are so precarious, it’s become a new cause for water crusader Robert F. Kennedy Jr. He’s head of the powerful U.S. environmental group the Waterkeeper Alliance. He recently faced off against Lorne Taylor in Calgary to debate Alberta’s record on water.
Kennedy is setting up a Waterkeeper chapter in Alberta to monitor the major rivers and to increase public scrutiny over the quality and quantity of water in the province. Brian Stazinski hopes it will be part of a changing public perception about how the oil and gas industry uses water in Alberta.
“In rural Alberta, where the impacts are occurring, the rural people are starting to say enough is enough,” says Stazinski. “Your impacts are way too big and we’re paying a big price here and so Mr. Klein, wake up, we’re your constituency and that’s one constituency he has to listen to.”
Alberta has made its fortune from oil and gas with the help of what seemed to be an unlimited supply of water. But that supply is shrinking, no longer able to quench the demands of big industry and big agriculture the way it has in the past. It means the province now faces tough choices about how to use its disappearing water.
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