Imagine a transport truck crashing into your house at 60 km/h in the middle of the night. Over the next four days, this same crash recurs three times a night, every night.
That’s what living next to a natural gas fracking operation was like last May for Jim and Patricia Strasky—third generation farmers living just northwest of Dawson Creek, BC—when seismic tremors were triggered by multiple gas wells less than a kilometre from their front door.
The Strasky’s own a 405 hectare (1,000-acre) wheat and barley farm in Farmington, a community in the heart of British Columbia’s gas-rich Montney formation, one of the largest deposits of natural gas on earth. Once a sleepy valley of multi-generational grain and livestock farmers, a recent resource boom has transformed Farmington into an industrial sacrifice zone: by July 2018 there were 559 active wells and 73 gas-related facilities (with another 379 in development or authorized) within a 15 kilometre area.
I met the Straskys in July, when I spent two weeks travelling the Montney gas fields, meeting with the landowners who live closest to the resource. Jim estimates there are at least 100 fracking wells within a three kilometre radius of their front door. Six pipelines snake across the farm, including one built by a company that expropriated his land to build the right of way. (He is currently suing Calgary’s Encana over this, alleging they paid him a fraction of the land’s value).
Farmington in particular has been booming in recent years because it is rich in valuable hydrocarbons like butane and propane. But suddenly, natural gas (which has been at low prices), has also been given a boost. In October, a Shell-led consortium announced it would move ahead with a $40 billion project to export natural gas to Asia—meaning a massive ramp up of activity is coming to this region, whether landowners in the Montney area are ready for it or not.
“A bunch of Albertans and Americans get rich from all this devastation, and we’re the sacrificial lambs.”
As Jim Strasky tells it, life in close proximity to the gas industry is a waking nightmare. For weeks at a time, the night in this little valley has been illuminated by floodlights, as thousands of trucks roar 24-7 down the dirt roads. First come the drilling derricks working around the clock, followed by hydraulic fracturing—where millions of litres of fresh water mixed with sand and chemicals (all delivered by truck) are injected below ground under crushing pressure to fracture the rock and release the hydrocarbons.
The tremors caused by this process have caused cracks in the foundations of his house, claims Strasky, but he cannot prove industry was the cause.
Strasky has more problems than just pipelines and fracking impacts. At least two wells are inactive on his land, after Terra Energy, a Calgary company, went belly up in 2016. (He is concerned these sites will never be properly cleaned up). Industrial impacts to landowners in Farmington are not generally the result of companies going rogue: most are following the letter of the law.
Farmers I talked to said the problem is lax government regulations—shaped by almost two decades of provincial BC Liberal Party rule that prioritized the growth of gas production. Strong new legislation to limit the cumulative impacts from gas exploration, fracking and pipelines on landowners is a priority issue, says Strasky, but he is not optimistic about change. He says the BC Oil and Gas Commission, the provincial regulator that is entrusted on paper to protect the public interest, in his experience, behaves more like a one-stop permitting agency for industry.
We drive past one of the mothballed Terra wells, set amid a yellow sea of blooming alfalfa. “My grandchildren will have to farm around those abandoned wells,” he says. “A bunch of Albertans and Americans get rich from all this devastation, and we’re the sacrificial lambs.”
What’s deceiving about the landscape around Farmington is that despite the intensive activity, it does not resemble the apocalyptic landscapes of parts of Pennsylvania or Colorado that have been intensively fracked. Much of the land here is still actively farmed. At one point as we drove the backroads of his farm, Strasky stopped his pick-up truck in front of a 1940s homesteader cabin (built by his grandfather and uncle), at a spot criss-crossed by pipelines, including a large-diameter pipe sucking water out of a nearby river. Nailed to the old building was a giant sign—created by Strasky as a protest:
This homestead cabin was built by two Great Men in a time when people had respect for each other and the land they lived on!
“I couldn’t just write ‘fuck off,’ so this is what I could say,” he said of the sign.
About 10 kilometres away live Olaf and Diane Jorgensen, who retired from farming in 2009 and now rent their 1760-acre property to local grain farmers. They have five pipelines and 16 active fracking wells on their land—the closest multi-well pad is about a kilometre from their house.
Since the first lease appeared on their land in 1998, the Jorgensens also claim fracking has caused cracks in the walls of their house. But to date, they have not been able to prove that the violent shaking of their house during fracking “completions”—the violent process by which sections of horizontally-drilled well are injected and fracked with pressurized liquid—has caused the damage. “You can suspect fracking is causing it,” says Diane, “but you can’t prove it.”
The Jorgensens lay out how the system has worked for them. When a company wants to access your land, one day you find a registered letter in the mailbox. You can disagree with the proposed development, but in their experience, resistance is often futile. If you try to fight, the BC Oil and Gas Commission can issue a permit that allows the company to legally enter onto your land. If you persist, the case might go before a government-appointed tribunal. “They are supposed to be a neutral body, but in our experience, it’s all for industry and nothing for the landowner,” says Diane.
(You can see the recent “right of entry” decisions here that have repeatedly gone against the Jorgensens.)
The Jorgensens say they would take a significant loss if they tried to sell their home. Potential buyers are wary of living in such close proximity to wells and pipelines that could potentially expose occupants to “sour gas”—a potentially-deadly form of natural gas containing hydrogen sulphide (H2S). “Who wants to live close to a gas plant or wells that [could leak] dangerous H2S?” asks Olaf, adding their land as it currently exists would only be attractive to buyers who wanted to farm the land and not live there.
When I call them in mid-November for an update, they are anxious about a new plan to add another 13 fracking wells and a pipeline near their home.
Many of the landowner-industry conflicts I encountered in the Farmington area would have been moot even a decade ago. Historically conventional gas drilling would see one gas well to each single well pad, but the growth of fracking and horizontal drilling has changed everything. During my travels, I saw many new drill pads with over 20 separate wells—encompassing huge clear cuts or rectangles of former agricultural land. Such intensive fracking has revolutionized the efficiency and profitability of extraction while reducing the footprint of single well pads, but it has also intensified the impacts on landowners.
“If there’s a fire or accident, we would be trapped.”
The election of British Columbia’s NDP government in 2017, formed with support from the BC Green Party, has provided hope that landowner rights might improve. Neither the BC Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources or the OGC would provide an interview for this story, but by email, the latter pointed to new measures to control noise from industry operations. This includes a Farmington-specific requirement for companies to provide affected landowners with info on noise sources, levels and duration. Changes are also coming to how companies pay into a fund to finance the clean-up of orphaned wells—although the Ministry would not confirm whether companies will now pay more or less than they currently do.
On the subject of cumulative impacts from an uptick in production to supply LNG for export, the OGC wrote, “there are no plans to limit the size and concentration of wells at this time.”
If there is a test case for the new government moving forward, it will be a flurry of new gas development proposed in an area known as Briar Ridge—near the BC town of Pouce Coupe just west of the Alberta border. Some landowners are already calling it the next Farmington.
The area in question is a rural subdivision of acreage lots—roughly five acres each, surrounded by larger farms. Calgary-based Encana has proposed an expansive development in this area, but are encountering resistance from a small band of organized local landowners who stand to absorb the greatest impacts.
Jenn Bowes, whose family raises sheep and grows market vegetables beside the Pouce Coupe River, says they bought their farm in 2016, before there was development in the immediate area. Today there are two fracking sites about three kilometres from her home, and a plan from Encana for three new multi-well fracking pads—the closest is about one kilometre away.
Bowes and a group of about 20 local families are opposed to the new sites—and are concerned in particular about the H2S leaks and accidents.
“We live on a dead-end road, there’s no cell service past our house, and there are 14 homes past us that are downwind and downhill from the site,” she says. “There’s only one way out, and one of the proposed sites is right on the [exit] road. If there’s a fire or accident, we would be trapped.”
Bowes says the company is not obliged to notify residents outside of an 800 metre radius of a development if there is an emergency. They are also not required to do any baseline testing of soil, water and air quality before they establish their wells and infrastructure.
For her part, Bowes is fighting to get the company to do modelling of how a H2S leak would disperse in the area, and share a long-term plan for how it will develop the area over the coming decades. So far Encana has agreed to do baseline and monthly tests of the water Bowes gives her livestock.
Encana did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails.
Not everyone is unhappy with the situation at Briar Ridge. Bowes tells me one of her closest neighbours is happy to lease their land for cash. The problem with that is, the development will be closer to Bowes’ house than it is to the family getting paid.
This is one of the ways gas development pits neighbor against neighbor, tearing communities apart.
“A lot of my neighbours also work for the gas industry, so they are concerned about all of this, but they don’t want to say anything, for fear of losing their jobs.”
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