Oil and gas development on CFB Suffield is damaging some of the last remaining intact native prairie

Wes Richmond drives down a gravel road at Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Suffield and points at the vista in front of his black range control vehicle. What was once native prairie grasslands is littered with oil pumpjacks and gas wells a compressor station and other oil and gas infrastructure. “This is what we call Little Kuwait” says Richmond the base environmental officer. It’s Richmond’s job to try and protect the base from environmental destruction and it’s soon obvious he’s got his work cut out for him. CFB Suffield is located 50 kilometres northwest of Medicine Hat and contains over 2690-square-kilometres of native grasslands. It is an internationally significant block of native prairie containing crucial habitat for a host of plants and animals that are at risk of extinction. CFB Suffield is home to Ord’s kangaroo rats and burrowing owls which are considered endangered species under the federal Species-At-Risk Act (SARA as well as home to ferruginous hawks short-eared owls Great Plains toads and Northern Leopard frogs which are considered species of special concern under SARA. “CFB Suffield is absolutely essential I think for the survival of many species. It’s kind of like the gene pool if you will for a lot of wildlife…. Because we are such a large block of contiguous mixed grass prairie we’re providing refuge for a lot of these species” he says. But the vast fragile prairie and various species-at-risk have to share their home with the British military ranchers who graze cattle and oil and gas developers. What worries Richmond most of all is the extent of the oil and gas development which he says is the most destructive. LITTLE KUWAIT Little Kuwait is formally known as the Oil Access Area. Richmond points out a wetland that has five oil wells in it. He says they were put into the wetland several years ago before the military stepped up environmental protection efforts on the base but he doesn’t think the companies who put them there were ever legally allowed to drill wells in a wetland. Up a small hill heavy equipment is ripping up the prairie. There are two large holes in the ground where oil and gas workers have dug up the contaminated soil caused by two pipeline leaks. A pipeline owned by Inter Pipeline Fund spilled 40000 litres of oil on the ground and a pipeline owned by EnCana spilled 50000 litres of oil and saline water. EnCana’s pipeline leak occurred in a section of pipe built under a wetland. “They’re large but it’s not out of the ordinary” says Richmond. Sixteen oil and gas companies operate on CFB Suffield and they’ve drilled over 10000 oil and gas wells. EnCana is by far the largest company operating on the base. “We’ve seen the number of wells more than double in the last seven years and they’ve got plans to drill thousands more. There’s no end. Technology changes the price of the gas is going up. There’s so much incentive for them to keep on drilling” he says. Oil and gas companies have also started drilling oil wells in other areas of CFB Suffield which is a relatively new phenomenon. Richmond says up until 1999 all oil activity was confined to the Oil Access Area. Natural gas wells have been drilled all over the base since the 1970s.On any given day there can be up to 1500 oil and gas vehicles driving around the base accessing well sites and other infrastructure says Richmond The oil and gas industry claims to be doing what it can to minimize its impact on the fragile ecosystem. Cam Cline manager of stakeholder engagement for EnCana says the company uses “minimal disturbance” techniques to reduce the size of area affected when a new well is drilled. The company also tries to use existing roads to access new wells instead of building new ones. Cline says the company has a policy that oil and gas vehicles have to be washed before entering CFB Suffield to reduce the spread of invasive weeds. EnCana also has a policy of staying off certain roads during snake migration periods in order to reduce the number of snakes killed. The company has started switching to plastic pipes in pipelines instead of steel pipes which have a tendency to corrode and cause pipeline leaks. The company has also paid for research on the Ord’s kangaroo rat an endangered species. “The oil and gas industry is an industry that’s looking for constant improvement and I think that has been the history of CFB Suffield. We have continuously gotten better at understanding environmental concerns and changing our operating practices to deal with that and we’ll continue to do that” he says. LACK OF RESPECT However DND documents that were obtained in an Access to Information request by various environmental groups paint a damning picture of oil and gas activity. In a January 17 2006 environmental audit done by DND of EnCana’s “minimal disturbance” drilling techniques in an area of CFB Suffield called Koomati a biologist found that EnCana hadn’t followed two Alberta Energy and Utilities Board (EUB) guidelines. In one case the biologist observed “extreme” cases of vehicle rutting on the ground “indicating that development was occurring during wet and unfrozen ground conditions” which is contrary to an EUB guideline that expects companies to develop wells and access the well sites in “dry or frozen conditions.” The same audit found that only one of 33 wells in the area was accessed using a single trail which is contrary to another EUB guideline stipulating that vehicles should only use pre-existing and surveyed access routes. The biologist found that “short-cut routes” to well sites “increase habitat fragmentation soil compaction disturbance of wildlife and promote the spread of invasive species.” In the audit 23 of 33 well sites were considered to have an overall disturbance level of more than 51 per cent despite minimal disturbance techniques being employed. In a February 8 2006 letter CFB Suffield base commander Daniel Drew says oil and gas industry activities on the base “illustrate an apparent lack of respect for the landowner and the lands themselves.” He was referring to an environmental incident report that found that oil and gas companies had abandoned “hazardous material drums and lubricant pails assorted pipe plastic tubing oil rags and frac sand” at well sites. The environmental incident report also recorded an oil spill that contaminated several hundred square metres of soil. The oil and gas industry was also criticized for failing to put metal grates instead of plywood coverings over well caissons in order to ensure wildlife weren’t endangered. In the environmental incident report Richmond wrote “the findings of this rather limited inspection indicate that the oil and gas industry is doing a very poor job of policing its activities” and “the base is not prepared to accept such substandard performance.” The base has also had to police the oil and gas industry to ensure they’re not building wells in wetlands. In a March 29 2005 letter to EnCana the former base commander Ken Steed chastises the company for placing a gas well in a large wetland. He writes “as you may appreciate the issue of wells near or in wetlands has been a concern for some time. The Base maintains a policy of no wells in or close proximity to a wetland.” Other documents obtained in the Access to Information request give cause for concern about how the oil and gas industry is dealing with species-at-risk. In a January 2005 environmental overview of EnCana’s oil and gas drilling plans in the Koomati area base biologist Brent Smith points out that the location of 48 of the proposed wells don’t meet setback requirements established by the EUB and CFB Suffield which were established to protect species-at-risk. Smith writes “of highest concern are endangered species including Ord’s kangaroo rat burrows and burrowing owl nests and sharp-tailed grouse…. Development near these features should at the very least follow established setback distances.” Fast Forward was unable to confirm whether EnCana changed the location of the wells after the environmental overview was submitted to the company. WILD WILD WEST Cliff Wallis a Calgary environmental consultant and past president of the Alberta Wilderness Association is extremely concerned about what’s happening on the base. “(CFB Suffield) is one of five or six areas on the Northern Great Plains that’s been identified by numerous conservation and environmental organizations as significant. It’s internationally significant in size and complexity” he says. However he says oil and gas companies aren’t treating the landscape with any respect. “It is the wild west. It’s wild in the wrong way – an unruly unmanaged unplanned for way.” Richmond says the military is working with oil and gas companies “to come to grips with the issues. There’s headway being made… but we’ve still got a long way to go yet.” The biggest problem with the scale of oil and gas activity on CFB Suffield is the fragmentation of the native prairie due to various roads pipelines well sites and other infrastructure that’s required says Richmond. He adds that native prairie is extremely sensitive to disturbance. “It can take 80 to 100 years to fully recover to the condition it was before. That’s if everything’s good. If you’ve always got a continuous disturbance or activity on that site it will take that much longer before it starts to recover again. In my mind that’s destroying native prairie — it’s not just disturbance” says Richmond. Richmond is also concerned about the introduction of invasive species due to oil and gas activity. “Anywhere you make a scar on the prairie there’s a potential for an alien species to take a foothold there” he says. “It tends to occur on trails that vehicles and equipment travel.” Richmond says all military vehicles are washed and inspected before they arrive at a new base to ensure they’re not carrying anything onto it. He says oil and gas activity is “where the greatest influx of alien plant species come from.” As Richmond gives Fast Forward a tour of a portion of CFB Suffield he constantly has to radio in to the base with his co-ordinates to ensure we don’t accidentally drive into live military exercises that are underway. Tanks and other military equipment are regularly roaring across the landscape engaging in simulated warfare. However Richmond says that live fire military training isn’t nearly as damaging as oil and gas development. With oil and gas development an area is continually accessed for decades whereas military operations happen all over the base so no one area is repeatedly damaged. Military tanks can mimic the effect that bison had on the landscape by trampling the native prairie and live fire can start grass fires which used to occur naturally on the landscape in the past. As for grazing Richmond says it’s easily controllable. If one area is overgrazed the military can prevent it from being accessed. The extent of the oil and gas development is harder to monitor he says. PRICELESS PRAIRIE A piece of CFB Suffield the Suffield National Wildlife Area (SNWA) was formally set aside for protection in 2003. The SNWA protects 458-square -kilometres of native prairie within the base. No live military training is allowed to occur there. Prior to the SNWA receiving protected status it already had over 1000 oil and gas wells within it. Last year EnCana applied to drill another 1275 wells within the SNWA. However the company has to receive approval from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency which will be holding a formal public hearing on the application. No one from EnCana or DND including Richmond will comment on the application before the public hearing. Several environmental organizations including the AWA are opposed to the development proposal arguing that no development should be allowed within the SNWA. Wallis says all of CFB Suffield is important not just the SNWA. He argues the province has done a poor job of protecting the grasslands ecosystem and the base is one of the last areas that remains worth saving. “The whole grasslands ecosystem has been heavily converted into other uses and places like Suffield become more valuable as time goes by not less valuable.” He’d like to see an environmental management plan for the entire base. “I think you need an ecosystem level plan that says how these (species-at-risk) will be managed for. Some will be tolerant of human activities and some will be very sensitive. Where are the blocks that are free of human activity to accommodate these species?” Because CFB Suffield is on federal land both the EUB and DND have to give approval to any oil and gas projects. Brenda Poole Bellows spokesperson for the EUB says her organization only has the mandate to approve individual projects not to look at the broader ecosystem. However Poole-Bellows says the EUB sends out field inspectors to ensure regulations are being met “particularly in environmentally sensitive areas.” “Across the province we are seeing that industry is maintaining a very high level of compliance” she says. “We’re out there and on the job and the environment and public safety is our top priority.” Richmond says the base is working on a management plan to ensure environmental sustainability. The previous base commander placed a cap on how much development could happen in one area to 16 disturbances per section. However the EUB rejects the base’s ability to enforce such a cap because the EUB approves projects on an individual basis based on each project’s merit. Richmond says DND “right up the chain of command” is concerned about preserving the native prairie. “We don’t want to go to the point where it’s beyond recovery and that’s what we’re trying to manage now” he says. Richmond admits there isn’t enough known about species-at-risk on the base and how they’re faring or whether there are any trends occurring that could be linked to oil and gas activity grazing or military training. He says the military is planning to add 19 news staff to improve its monitoring capabilities. “We’ve got a long ways to go to have any kind of a handle on what’s really happening out there what the impacts really are.” “It’s the most misunderstood piece of ground in the world. Everybody knows about the rainforest but the prairie most people drive by it on the highway and they don’t really appreciate what they’re looking at. It’s just more flat ground — who gives a rat’s ass — but there are species that are endemic to this area that will disappear be it plants or insects or birds or animals or amphibians or snakes. If you don’t have the native prairie or the wetlands to support their existence they’re going to be gone. It’s important. It’s part of our culture. It’s our heritage. When it’s gone it’s gone. Once you start losing species you’re not going to get them back.”