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Alberta ranchers: Methane in the water

The Campbells: Methane migration into drinking water aquifer

The Campbells on their farm.

Since 2005, Ronalie and Shawn Campbell have devoted themselves to learning about the oil and gas industry so that they can ranch cattle with clean water. Regulators have linked the thermogenic gas that started burping from their taps to the activities of at least one of four possible oil companies, but after seven years the Campbells’ case with the Alberta Energy Regulator has been officially closed without being resolved.

Alberta Environment and then the ERCB were responsible for the investigation of their water contamination. Leading U of A isotope researcher Dr. Karlis Muehlenbachs also conducted tests and has found that their water is contaminated by methane and other gases originating from more than 1700 meters below.

It is clear that only fractures or faulty well casings make this migration possible, yet the Campbells have been left to deal with the problem on their own because the ERCB failed to hold a particular company responsible. Ronalie and Shawn ask themselves why the companies in question cannot share the responsibility and divide the bill four ways.

 The presence of methane is not the only problem they have encountered. Two years ago, one of their hayfields began to flood when unusual springs suddenly appeared on the hillside below one of the injection wells on their property. The first summer this happened, Shawn got the tractor stuck while haying and by the second winter the field was covered in huge sheets of ice. Shawn also points out the puddles of oil around the wellheads at some of the pump jacks. There are 30 well sites dispersed across eleven quarter sections owned by the Campbells and their son.

 Shawn says, “The biggest thing about farming is that you have your own freedom… It’s like wildlife. Wildlife is free to come and go. That’s what I like about this idea of farming and ranching… I have that freedom to go out and check my cows, to go out and check the fields, check the crops… I have the ability to say yes or no to things. And that’s what I think of as freedom.” They moved to the ranch in the Ponoka area in 1997 “for the fact of the hills, and for more of God’s nature … having that to look forward to everyday has given me the will to push on,” says Shawn.

Rig near the Alberta ranch

The Campbells’ house is back and to the left beneath the cluster of evergreens.

Each of the Campbells has a favourite place on their land. For Shawn, it’s on top of the hill just behind their home. “It gives me the sense of being right with God, I mean not right with God, but right with Him. I see what he sees. If you can imagine being up above the whole world and looking down on it, my hill gives me that… I can see the whole valley off to the east of it. And from one end to the other, it is just the most awesome thing that I have ever seen. And ya, I call it my hill. It is my freedom.”

But with twenty-five-year leases turning into fifty-year leases, some of that freedom has been taken from the Campbells. Ronalie explains that when they first signed the contracts, they were like anyone else who saw the energy leases as helpful income when farming prices were down, but “we didn’t look far down the road,” she says.

“At one time I laugh my job on the farm was totally side by side with Shawn. We ran equipment side by side, we worked cattle side by side. That’s the kind of relationship we have. But all of a sudden I found that, besides that, I had to find a half-a-life to devote to learning the oil and gas industry, to writing letters, to preparing presentations, to taking pictures, all of that to document this other life that we’ve now kind of been forced to live.”

Ronalie reminisces on the early days when they first attempted to address their water problems. “Years ago, naively, we thought all we’ve got to do is call up the companies and say we’ve got a problem here, and they would address it,” says Ronalie. The Campbells had experienced mostly good relationships with the oil companies and were caught off guard when things went sour. “The minute it was discovered that likely there was a link to their activities in this area causing problems with our water and the contamination,” she says, “then the relationship started to fall apart really fast.”

Gas trucks on their way past the Alberta farm.

Shawn and Ronalie were cordially invited to one particular company’s head office in Calgary to meet with its president. He had previously been to their home to discuss one of the Campbells’ wells prior to a Surface Rights Board hearing. When the deep gas appeared in their water, they took him up on the open invitation to “come anytime.”

“He listened … to what we had to say,” says Shawn, “and then all of a sudden he got up and he drove his fist into the table and he said ‘that’s enough of this and we won’t talk about it anymore.’” Shawn shakes his head and says, “to this day, I wish we would have gotten up and walked out.”

Earlier this summer, a representative came to their door to deliver a flaring notice and to notify them of a hydraulic fracturing operation that would be taking place on the neighbour’s land. Ronalie expressed concern that it might cause further contamination of their water. To this the individual replied, “If it happens there’s nothing I can do about it anyways.”

Shawn talks about how important it is that he has Ronalie at his side. “I can get things across, but it’s usually the blunt way, she has a way with words.” Ronalie smiles in agreement and says that their experiences would not be easily faced alone. “Once you speak out, like we’ve been doing, you’re kind of ostracized from the community and you have to work really hard to still be accepted… You would think that you’re trying to do something good, you’re trying to protect people, but everyone has their own ideas about what this will do to their community.”

Nonetheless, the Campbells continue to fight for the protection of their water and their rights. Shawn says jokingly that their persistence comes from being Campbells and from being stubborn, but mostly from wanting “things to be right.”

“There are so many people out there that are living with impacts from the development on their land,” says Ronalie. “We’ve got quite a long list and I’m sure there’s many, many more that have not contacted us. And once you find out their stories, and some of them are much more sad because of the sickness that they have had to go through, then you realize that only certain people maybe have the courage to speak out, only some people have the information… ”

“And we came to a spot where we realized that we’ve got that information, we’ve got that understanding now. We need to try and protect other people and the best way we can protect them is to offer what we know, what we’ve experienced, so that maybe they won’t have to go through the same things and hopefully people will contact us if they’ve got questions because we’ve spent years learning about these impacts. We’re constantly learning, because the industry is constantly changing.”

Cattle walking on the ranch

The Campbells have found that as landowners, there are few mechanisms left intact to help them and they are disappointed by the debut of the new Alberta Energy Regulator, which merged Alberta Environment and the ERCB and reduced the landowner’s right to a hearing under Bill 2. “There’s no one looking after the landowner side of it,” says Ronalie. “You have to learn for yourself and try and protect yourself and your farm for your family and the generations to come.”

Shawn and Ronalie both encourage all Albertans to stand up for their rights. “We sat quiet for many years before we got anywhere,” says Shawn. “Then we started speaking out and, you know, slowly but surely things are starting to happen… So don’t be afraid, call us, speak out on your own behalf. Just don’t be afraid of them because they’re just people like you and I.”

In the meantime, the Campbells hope that the hydraulic fracturing next door will not escalate the problems they are already experiencing.

Despite their frustrations, Ronalie and Shawn still have hope. “I don’t believe for one minute that all Albertans believe that oil and gas is the only way to live in this province,” says Ronalie. “I believe that there’s lots of other industries and lots of things that they want to see as a vision for where this province is going.”

“Alberta wasn’t built on oil and gas,” says Shawn, “Alberta was built on agriculture. Alberta was started with a plow, and horseback, and cattle. It wasn’t started with oil and gas.”

(Ed. note: Watch the video of the Campbells below, one in a series of documentary videos from the AlbertaVoices project.)

For a transcript of their talk last fall at the Responsibility for the Land Conference in Camrose, click here.

You can also watch a video of their presentation  here.

Editorial Notes: From the Alberta Voices website:

We hope to give voice to those whose troubling experiences with hydraulic fracturing and associated activities may not have not been considered in Alberta’s discussion of oil and gas development. By making these voices heard through film, we hope to help facilitate informed and thoughtful discourse so Albertans can make wise decisions about the future of our province. You can find out more about the project and the team here.
 

 

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