From grain country to gas land

Fracking operations, which extract condensate for Alberta's oilsands, are quietly encroaching on B.C. farmland, raising questions about the meaning of the Agricultural Land Reserve and pushing Peace Country farmers toward their ‘breaking point’

On the outskirts of Dawson Creek business is brisk at a railway siding where a new venture has sprung up alongside three grain buyers.

It is late September, days after an early snowfall. With the snow now melted, farmers race to get their crops in.

Back on grain-buying row, five long “b-train” trucks line up. As one of the double-trailer trucks pulls away onto the Alaska Highway, another pulls in.

But the trucks aren’t delivering grain — they are being loaded with the newest hot commodity: sand.

For many local farmers, the trucks are a grim reminder of their diminished status. Grain country is now gas land. Wheat, barley, oats and canola crops may still be grown in abundance — but fossil fuel companies call the shots.

A fourth grain-buyer once worked where the frack sand seller now hangs his shingle. The new business on the block is LaPrairie, a company with a bucolic name that peddles in the inedible.

The sand sold by LaPrairie — 63,500 kilograms per truck — is destined for new natural gas wells sprouting up all over northern B.C.’s Agricultural Land Reserve, which exists at least theoretically to preserve land for growing food.

Forcing natural gas from the ground deep below local farmlands requires some of the most intense hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, operations on earth.

During fracking, tons of sand and millions of litres of water are pressure-pumped underground with such brute force that local farmhouses shake. The water fractures the shale rock deep below the grain fields, while the sand props the fractures open to let the trapped gas out.

It takes roughly four million kilograms, or 64 b-train trucks of sand, to complete just one frack job. With each passing truck, some local farmers feel they are being told if not literally, then figuratively, to eat dirt. For some, it may herald an end to a way of life that has seen three or more generations tilling the earth.

To get a sense of the growing tensions in this fractured land, The Narwhal visited the Farmington area, a rural enclave north and west of Dawson Creek in July and again in September.

Welcome to the land of industrial sprawl

With a rueful chuckle, Brian Derfler welcomes the visitor to “the land of northern lights.” Except he’s not talking about shape-shifting sheets of white and green light that occasionally turn Canadian skies into mystical dreamscapes, but ignited natural gas, roaring out of flare stacks and the harsh glare of halogen bulbs at gas plants and compressor stations.

“We’ve got so much light pollution, it’s mind-boggling,” says Derfler, a third-generation farmer. “The development has just started. We just don’t know where it’s going to end. There’s a lot of uncertainty.”

In the past few years, farm families around Farmington have witnessed an unparalleled ramp-up in industrial activities. Encana recently spearheaded the construction of three large gas processing plants. One of them, called Sunrise, is the largest such plant built in Western Canada in 30 years and is a half-hour drive from Derfler’s home.

The second, Saturn, is just minutes away from the Derfler farm, while the Tower plant, situated on a bench of farmlands between the Kiskatinaw and Peace rivers, is a 20-minute drive away.

All three plants gobbled up farmland and highlight Encana’s plans to cash in on the region’s “liquids rich” natural gas deposits. It is gas land’s good fortune and grain country’s bad luck that the region’s hydrocarbon deposits contain lots of condensate, a liquid prized by Alberta’s oilsands producers, who use it to dilute low-value, unrefined bitumen so it can be piped to refineries.

The condensate is what Encana is after. To get it means more wells, more fracking, more pipelines, more processing plants. In short, much more industrial sprawl.

“My prediction is we’ll see one gas well pad here every half mile in any direction if they have their way and two wells every quarter. And there goes the farmland,” Derfler says.

Famers rarely talk metric. A “quarter” or “quarter section” denotes 160 acres of land. Typically, the region’s grain farmers own one or more “sections,” or four quarters (for the metric-thinkers among us, a “section” is equal to about 2.5 square kilometres). Many lease and farm more land beyond that.

On Farmington’s fields, most new well pads cover 20 acres, meaning that if Derfler is proven right just the well pads alone could take 25 per cent of farmland out of production.

In preparation for drilling those pads, Encana and others operating in the B.C.’s South Peace region, bulldoze away all of the topsoil and underlying soil layers before the heavy drilling rigs and later fracking equipment arrives.

As the industry pumps more prized condensate from below ground, pad sizes are getting bigger as companies drill more wells on each pad.

North of Derfler’s farm a short distance east of the Tower gas plant, grain farmer Barry Critcher has a 39-acre well pad slated for his land with a proposed 56 wells.

The pad will occupy one corner of one quarter section, an outcome Critcher says was the best he could hope for under the circumstances and that was achieved only because Encana was willing to negotiate — not something that is always the case.

But, he noted, there’s no getting around that it’s “still a big piece of land. And you have to understand that realistically they can take 40 acres of every quarter if they want to.”

“How fast this is getting developed is incredible,” Critcher says. “I’m not a radical. I’m not against oil and gas. I would like to see it developed in a sustainable way that doesn’t have the impact on agriculture. We have to be here for the long-term together.”

“I’m not a radical. I’m not against oil and gas. I would like to see it developed in a sustainable way that doesn’t have the impact on agriculture.” — Barry Critcher, grain farmer

Permanent industrial sites quietly erode farmland

The region’s rapidly eroding farmlands are part of a continent-wide phenomenon. In a recent paper in the journal, Science, researchers from the University of Montana looked at oil and gas industry incursions on farmlands from the south coast of Texas to northern Alberta.

What they discovered was an industry that is seriously disrupting global food trading. Between 2000 and 2012 alone, fossil fuel company incursions on farmland caused the loss of 120 million bushels of wheat production, 13 per cent of all the wheat exported by the U.S. in 2013.

Closer to home, an advisory committee appointed by B.C. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham to recommend ways to “revitalize” the Agricultural Land Reserve recently flagged further losses to come.

The committee had particular concerns about the north, which is often unfairly portrayed as of marginal agricultural value. Not only does the north have expansive tracts of farmland, but its value as a food source may grow as global climate patterns change — provided that the land and water is there to support crop production.

“The impacts of oil and gas extraction on agricultural land and farm businesses in northeast B.C. have reached a breaking point,” the committee, headed by former Independent provincial MLA, Vicki Huntington, told Popham.

“Accelerating” oil and gas development is rapidly making parts of the Agricultural Land Reserve “unusable” to farm, the committee continued, warning: “With continued changes in extraction and processing methods along with the pace and scale of development, these activities that were once considered temporary are no longer. Instead they are permanent industrial sites built on farmland and next to farm communities.”

The panel raised particular concerns about the Balkanization of the land reserve. In 2014, the then Liberal government split the 40-year-old reserve in two. The dramatic change coincided with the government’s promotion of liquefied natural gas, or LNG, processing in the province.

Pat Pimm, a former consultant to the oil and gas industry who later became MLA for Peace North and subsequently agriculture minister, pushed hard for the changes as did Bill Bennett, MLA for Kootenay East, who went on to become energy minister and an advocate for the Site C dam.

In the southern Zone 1, protecting farmland remained a top priority. But in northern Zone 2, which encompassed both grain country and gas land, the rules were relaxed making it easier to use farmlands for “other” purposes.

In early November, the provincial government responded by introducing new legislation with Bill 52.

“We are protecting farmland in B.C. to ensure land is available now and for future generations of farmers, so people have a safe, secure supply of locally grown food on their tables for years to come,” Popham said in a prepared statement.

An accompanying press release noted the new bill would “restore the integrity” of the Agricultural Land Reserve by reinstating one zone for all farmlands, cracking down on companies dumping toxic wastes on farmland and preventing “wealthy speculators” from building “mega-mansions” on croplands — a hot button issue in the voter rich Lower Mainland.

Neither the press materials nor the bill mentioned the oil and gas industry, however. Nor was B.C.’s energy industry regulator, the Oil and Gas Commission, referred to once. Thanks to a “delegation” agreement between the Oil and Gas Commission and the Agricultural Land Commission, the Oil and Gas Commission has broad powers to allow for a range of “non-farm” uses in the land reserve.

From grain farm to industrial water hub in three simple steps

By far the most potent symbol of the threats to northern farmlands is the far-behind-schedule and massively over-budget Site C dam. In only its preliminary stages of development, the $10.7-billion-and-counting hydro project would flood thousands of acres of rich Peace River valley soils, among the best farmlands anywhere in B.C.

But in dispersed and much smaller pockets all over the Agricultural Land Reserve, productive farmlands lie buried under a spider’s web of earthen dams and reservoirs that fossil fuel companies built to trap freshwater used in their fracking operations.

Jim Strasky is another third-generation farmer. He has two such dams near his home along with two large “burrow pits” — essentially giant holes in the ground — which also hold water.

A few years ago, his neighbour’s land was farmed. Then someone came along with an offer too good to pass up.

“Outside investors, then consultants working for Encana, purchase property for nothing other than oil and gas. And I’m pretty sure Encana fronts them the money. Encana doesn’t buy direct because it looks bad,” Strasky says. “A third party buying it is more palatable.”

After Strasky’s neighbour sold, the new owner quickly excavated a huge pit at one end of the parcel. Overnight, a grain farm became an industrial water hub. Encana then applied for and received a new water licence from the Oil and Gas Commission. Bulldozers arrived. The topsoil was stripped away, and the excavated and mounded earth became a new dam.

After dam construction, a long, fat industrial hose snaked down the roadside ditch siding the dam. Derfler followed the hose one day in a four-by-four. It ran for almost five kilometres, before dropping down a steep rutted road to the banks of the Kiskatinaw River, a river that has run perilously low in recent years due to drought.

Four diesel-fired compressors, capable of moving tens of thousands of cubic metres of water through the hose were positioned along the route.

In 2017, according to the “Frac Focus” database maintained by the Oil and Gas Commission, Encana drilled 99 wells, and used just under two million cubic metres of water fracking those wells. By August of this year, Encana had drilled 166 wells, a pace that if maintained would see 300 wells fracked and four million cubic metres of water consumed by the end of the year.

Not all of that water will be freshwater, but much of it will be. And much of it will come from dam reservoirs that only a short while ago were grain fields.

Meanwhile, a big elephant in the room remains largely ignored.

“Nobody wants to deal with the cumulative effects,” says Strasky’s brother, Rod, who farms just nearby.

Earthquakes, frack dams and flaring

In May, in response to numerous complaints about industry incursions on farmlands, senior Oil and Gas Commission officials, including Dave Nikolejsin, deputy minister of the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources and chair of the commission, travelled north to deliver a presentation to the Peace River Regional District. The Oil and Gas Commission noted that 50 residences in and around Farmington were now within just half a kilometre of an active gas well or other industrial facility with many more wells to follow.

The region already had 559 active gas wells, another 88 were in development, and a further 291 more were authorized on roughly 150 more well pads. The Oil and Gas Commission also said that on five different occasions over the span of just one 12-month period ending last April, earthquakes were triggered by fracking operations resulting in “felt events” inside Farmington farmhouses. Jim Strasky says he spotted a crack in the foundation of his house shortly after one such event.

As a result, the Oil and Gas Commission told the regional district that it had issued a “special” order to Encana and other companies.

“The intent of this Order is to ensure companies are notifying residents when undertaking completion operations [a euphemism for fracking] at a well where there could be induced seismic — and felt events,” the Oil and Gas Commission told the Peace River Regional District, adding that it is important to open “lines of communication” with local residents who are the “most likely to be affected.”

Abandoned wells add insult to injury for struggling farmers

Rod and Jim Strasky trace their roots in grain country to their grandparents who emigrated to Canada from Slovakia in the 1920s and did the brutal work of clearing the land to make way for the farms and homesteads that followed. Their uncle, George Jr., successfully notched 65 consecutive crop years.

The work is relentless, the profit margins tight. Jim matter-of-factly said on a drive into Dawson Creek to deliver a truckload of red spring wheat that the price he’ll fetch will be close to what it was in the 1970s.

Rod and Jim continue to farm. But oil and gas company incursions onto their lands and those of their neighbours make it harder every day. Ever since the province sold Crown-owned BC Rail to CN, the brothers say it’s harder to move grain. To illustrate the point, Derfler tells a story about swinging by the rail siding outside the grain-buying row in Dawson Creek one April afternoon. There on the tracks were dozens of oilcars, another dozen or so carrying frack sand and one lone grain car being decoupled from its oil industry mates. It’s no wonder LaPrairie set up shop where it did.

But the ongoing losses and insults to the Straskys lands are the bigger worry. Both brothers deal with old gas wells that Terra Energy put in. When Terra went bankrupt a few years back, a contractor owed money slapped a lien on the quarter sections where those wells were located.

“If there’s an abandoned well site, and there’s liens on it, the banks won’t loan you any money,” Rod says.

Terra’s bankruptcy was a wakeup call for the Straskys. But also, the brothers say, for all of us.

That wakeup call is not just about the threats oil and gas industry expansions pose to farms and food security, but to the potentially huge, unfunded liabilities that provincial taxpayers in Alberta, British Columbia and elsewhere may face for decades after the condensate and gas is gone.

As Rod talked about the legacy of the Terra wells, excavator crews dug a wide swath through one of his fields while a legion of workers laid sections of a new gas pipeline. Not far away, another crew in another one of Rod’s quarters worked to fix the damage done by the installation of yet another pipeline. It was the second try at restoring the land.

“I refuse to farm that land until it is back to what it was before development. I waste my time and money trying to grow a crop on there,” Strasky says. “We’ve got pipelines in the ground here for ten years and it [the farmland] is not producing the way it was.”

Recent headlines were generated when a top Alberta official said the clean-up costs of oil sands mining operations and the “graveyard” of abandoned oil and gas industry operations may carry a price tag of $260 billion.

The magnitude of cleanup costs will likely be less in B.C., but Strasky is convinced there will be a big bill to pay and that a likely scenario is that the major players drilling and fracking for natural gas and condensate in northern B.C. will eventually leave, roll their aging assets into numbered companies and the province will be left on the hook for final cleanup costs.

On the ten quarter-sections of land he owns, seven have pipeline crossings with 13 different pipelines in the ground. He also has three small well pads on his land, including the two formerly owned by Terra.

But Terra’s well pads were tiny — clearings of one acre or less — nothing compared to today’s monstrous, multi-well pads.

“If bankruptcy occurs with a 20-acre pad, I can’t imagine the nightmare,” he says.

“Who’s going to want to buy a farm after all of this?”

by Ben Parfitt

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