Alberta landowners worried about impact of seismic drilling in rare grassland

A group of Alberta landowners on a pristine swath of Prairie grassland along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains fear planned seismic drilling in the area will open the door to unwelcome oil and gas activity and permanent environmental damage.

PORCUPINE HILLS, — A group of Alberta landowners on a pristine swath of Prairie grassland along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains fear planned seismic drilling in the area will open the door to unwelcome oil and gas activity and permanent environmental damage.

The region, south of Calgary near Claresholm, is home to one of the largest remaining tracts of rough fescue grass, a refuge for many species of wildlife and a critical aquifer for southern Alberta.

The upper watersheds of the eastern slopes provide water for the needs of the primarily rural economy downstream.

Word that a seismic company is planning to begin drilling test holes along Crown-owned road allowances in the region was met with immediate dismay.

“The water is the concern and the damage to the grass, and fire,” said local rancher Shauna Burton.

“I guess the thing is once they’re in here it’s the start of things to come. They know this is the watershed. It’s no secret this is the source of the water.

“It starts on the eastern slopes and what has the government done to protect it? Nothing.

“It is like opening Pandora’s Box because once they’re in. They’re in.”

Burton is worried the drilling could spur future oil and gas activity in the relatively untouched region, including hydraulic fracturing, an extraction method that has attracted a great deal of controversy.

The process, often called “ fracking,” involves blasting water, sand and chemicals into shale rock formations deep underground in order to unleash oil and natural gas. The industry says it is safe but critics blame it for water contamination.

“If they get out here fracking for coalbed methane … once the water is polluted what are you going to drink, guys? Water is life,” Burton said.

LandQuest Services Ltd. has reassured residents that care will be taken. President Ron Potts said he has heard similar concerns before.

“The fact is most of those people don’t want oil and gas. They think the oil and gas can be done someplace else,” Potts said.

He said all areas of Alberta are potential sources for energy and the company has the right to search on behalf of oil and gas companies.

“Oil and gas is a natural resource which is owned by the government which is to the benefit of all Canadians. They think if they stop seismic they stop oil and gas. All oil companies have the right to explore for oil and gas,” Potts said.

An official with Alberta Sustainable Resource Development said the seismic company is doing everything by the book and there’s no reason to block the operation.

“There’s no red flags raised from our perspective,” said spokesman Duncan MacDonnell.

“They’re strictly following what they are allowed to do and if it’s Crown land they can do their seismic testing.”

Burton said she realizes that trying to stop the seismic is a losing battle, but would like to know why it has to go ahead.

“They don’t need to develop the watershed. If we were out of oil and gas and it was the last place in the world then yes, start thinking about it. But it’s all about the money.”