Agriculture vs. Oil & Gas
"This may not be heaven, but it’s a local call." is a common sentiment for those of us that live and work in this rural community.
We reside on the Eastern Slopes of the Alberta Rocky Mountains along Highway #22 (The Cowboy Trail) between Longview and Lundbreck and Nanton. Our nearest service station, restaurant, post office or police/fire station is 53 km from our doorstep. The purpose of sharing the following information is to garner an interest in this culture and issue an appeal to our visitors to preserve the surrounding area, both the natural and the cultural landscape, recognizing the sensitive state and the balance necessary to satisfy all of the partners involved.
Specific areas of concern:
We are particularly concerned about the impacts of the oil and gas industry in this agricultural region. We are troubled that one industry is actively encouraged to take precedence over other industries in the province – Oil and Gas vs. Agriculture (Livestock - Beef, Pork, Poultry, Fish and other animals raised for food, Grain, Equine, Landscaping/Nurseries), Tourism (Farm/Ranch Vacations, Nature Hikes, Outfitting) and Film-Making.
There are several specific issues regarding the O&G activity in the area.
Our pasturing methods depend on good quality grass and range management is a component of the appropriate maintenance necessary to raise healthy livestock throughout the year. Native Fescue grasses have proven to be hardy enough to withstand the seasons along the Eastern Slopes of the Rockies – it remains exposed during snow, retains nutrients well after it’s ripened and there has been no match of a domestically produced grass to rival the compatibility in this region. Unmonitored traffic from various areas of the province provides a conduit for unwanted plant species that compete with native (tried and true) plants and reduce the productivity of our fescue grasses. We are also obliged to maintain the landscape for the well-being of the wildlife residing here and amending the ecosystem by introducing foreign plants will affect the balance of animals, birds and bugs reliant on the native species struggling to survive as invasive plants encroach.
The ranchers settling originally in this region recognized the resilient native fescue grasses as one of the primary benefits along the Eastern Slopes. The durability, nutrition and life-cycle of tame grass species cannot support the livestock currently occupying the terrain. Encroachment of these alien grasses and other plants, dramatically reduce the pasture available until supplements, feeding and intensive handling become serious options to consider for responsible cattle management. Feed supplements are costly and cumbersome to handle since they have to be distributed to the cattle and equipment must be acquired to deliver this product. Feeding requires heavier equipment (tractor, mower, baler, bale handler, troughs/feeders, etc). Intensive handling involves the construction of additional corrals, fences, barns, etc to provide for the aforementioned feeding process. The associated input costs (purchase price, maintenance, labour, fuel, time) for the equipment and outbuildings are the responsibility of the operator.
Many a rancher has said, “We are in the business of growing grass and if the grass is good, the cattle will be good and if the cattle are good . . . we’ll be fine!”
The introduction of additional resource-related activities can adversely affect the watersheds and riparian buffer areas necessary to provide a consistent water supply for the residents and livestock, particularly through periods of drought. While hydrologists are usually brought in to evaluate the appropriate method of site construction, such extremes as drought and flood are rarely considered when gauging the implications to the surrounding area and residents during and after the various stages of completion. Upstream activity affects downstream usage – always. Many municipalities continue to face challenges of water consumption during the summer months partly due to limited supplies but also related to the treatment necessary to make this water usable. The lack of Groundwater Research Studies to confirm or at least identify provincial sources, stocks and supplies is particularly troubling with the spectre of Coalbed Methane Drilling on the horizon in this area. The historical data concerning the landscape scarring and groundwater contamination associated with this type of activity is not a welcome prospect.
Agricultural operators with significant tenure on their land are familiar with their water sources. The water consumed in their home comes from a trusted supply (i.e. spring, well, dugout, etc.) and while the quality may require a purification system, the quantity is usually sufficient to satisfy the needs of the residence. There are specifications to be adhered to that the municipality identifies regarding the location of septic sites in relation to the buildings and flowing water and these are monitored by the building inspectors for the region. All of these costs (including permits, drilling, piping, purchase of purification unit, maintenance, labour, time, etc) are borne by the resident and since no water is piped in or out there are no expenses for the municipality. The new reality is water testing for contamination of all water sources for human or livestock consumption – another time-consuming and costly expense for the rural resident. Any alterations to the existing water supply would ultimately necessitate the development of a new water source and thus repeating the aforementioned expenses. Activities affecting our water sources include Oil and Gas operations, Logging and Recreation (specifically ATV and random-camping) upstream, particularly near the headwaters of our watersheds. The manipulation of these water systems may have long-term consequences which have yet to be discovered. The turbidity created by functions associated with these activities erodes creek and river banks (ultimately affecting the infrastructure: roads, bridges, lines, etc.), moves silt into the dams and further downstream (causing build-up which requires maintenance) and increases water treatment necessary for our towns and cities – these are costs for the common taxpayer. The Rocky Mountains is the primary supplier of our water sources and the Eastern Slopes spawn the headwaters of all our flowing water supplies. This is quite a responsibility for one (and only one) unique environment!
The construction of roads, power lines, pipelines, ditches, etc., affect the usual day-to-day operation of the property and associated livestock management. The inclusion of another “industry” on the ranch or farm site can complicate the flow of the original setup for manoeuvring livestock and equipment around the property. Increased traffic, whether during set-up/take-down, production or maintenance and servicing invites unauthorized traffic onto areas usually secured for residents. We have diversified into tourism and this Oil and Gas Development is visually unpleasant as a backdrop of a pristine landscape and not the vista expected by guests from outside the country. Disagreeable odours and sounds are some of the other obstacles to the provision of a comfortable stay for paying customers.
Land affected by the development of additional roads, ditches, power lines, pipelines, etc., usually cannot be reversed to its natural state to ensure restoration of the original ecosystem for this sensitive area. There is a fragile balance to maintain and one segment of this environment cannot be changed without affecting the natural stability needed to support the populous expected to survive on it. Once construction of any form is completed, there is a reluctance to remove it, which in turn advances the likelihood of additional development, further diminishing the best suited function of this land.
Land with O&G activity is usually not eligible for financing and cannot always be used as collateral. The land value is negatively affected for resale as the new purchasers will usually need mortgage financing to proceed with construction of a home. Retiring from the farm is an issue affected by these criteria – passing the family farm to the children is more complicated since the value isn’t there to move off and have the kids assume ownership without financing of some sort. Could an aging farming/ranching demographic be the by-product of this matter since the parents are staying on the farm longer? Or are the rural communities experiencing economic difficulties as a result of the children moving to the cities for better paying jobs, hoping to return in a better financial position to take over the “home place”? Our grown children are in the city and we gravitate to the city to combine family visits with shopping, thus removing our dollars from this economic community also – another punch absorbed by a rural region.
Flaring, emissions, dust, light, sound, managing increased traffic through the property, time and energy taken to comprehend the information required to stay involved with the activity being coordinated on your doorstep by another industry, travel to and from meetings, time spent on negotiations, discussions and phone calls are all part of the spectrum of pressures personally affecting our day-to-day operations. These outside influencers are rapidly becoming part of our routine!
The routine of the agricultural businessperson has changed to include becoming politically savvy, keeping up with new technology in the agricultural industry and learning about the other industries attempting to share the property. If there has been a problem with a specific site (i.e. release of H2S), the “burden of proof” is left to the landowner for any damages or expenses incurred as a result. This method of approach changes for all animal husbandry since each incident (regardless of the seriousness) must be documented and substantiated by a Veterinarian in order to receive compensation. Gone are the days of independent assessment and treatment because of the potential for outside influences intruding on the environment. Uninvited individuals accessing the property and handling items (i.e. machinery, tools, fences, livestock, etc.) has given rise to the spectre of suspicion regarding the O&G Industry. Another matter relative to the environmental impact on the agricultural operation is the longevity of barbed wire. The wire of a typical fence line has a life span of over 30 years but with O&G in the area it becomes rusty and brittle, reducing it’s longevity to less than 10 years. If the emissions affect our fences this way, what is it doing to us? (We have wire on one of our fences that’s 80 years old and still pliable enough to splice new pieces to it because we don’t have any wells near us. ASB Tours to other counties and conversations with ranchers in neighbouring regions have confirmed this phenomenon.) Time spent on research and actively developing projects to improve the agricultural venture has been compromised by the outside burdens forced upon this area. To completely understand a foreign industry while trying to improve the one that’s paying the bills can be a frustrating task.
Consequences relative to the issues identified above are costly, both for the landowner and taxpayer since remediation is necessary to restore the land utilization. The use of this land, lifestyle associated with this land, business done on this land, relationships with the environment or ecosystem of the land, the senses (sight, sound, smell, feel, taste) affected by what happens on the land, etc., are all important to those that live on this land. We don’t just work or play here.
Common misconceptions regarding the agricultural demographic include preconceived ideas about the life and lifestyle in the country . . . viewing farming/ranching as a recreational activity as opposed to a business operation affected and sometimes controlled (as with BSE) by outside influencers that include politics, economics, climate, commodity trading, etc. Some individuals are reluctant to know about where their food comes from and how the food is processed prior to arriving on their plates.
We welcome visitors to Chimney Rock Bed and Breakfast and invite them to embrace the connection to a place of wide open spaces and big skies, the quiet enjoyment of the countryside, await the rustling leaves as they signal another season of growth and encourage them to share meals with us that feature many locally grown products.