Army on the front line of environmental defence

In Afghanistan, Lt.-Col. Doug Claggett’s mission was to protect the population from insurgents. Now as commander of one the country’s biggest training bases he’s still a guardian, but for a whole set of endangered species and tracts of wilderness.

In Afghanistan, Lt.-Col. Doug Claggett’s mission was to protect the population from insurgents. Now as commander of one the country’s biggest training bases he’s still a guardian, but for a whole set of endangered species and tracts of wilderness.

Claggett, who acted as chief of staff to the last Canadian task force in Kandahar, is in charge of Canadian Forces Base Suffield, Alta., which for over three decades has been at the centre of a quiet tug-of-war with the oil and gas industry.

The army is finding itself increasingly on the front line of environmental defence.

The issue has been percolating through the military, especially in light of a decision last year by the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board to approve 47 non-routine natural gas well applications by energy giant Cenovus.

Claggett is required to balance a trifecta of demands for access to rich resources underneath the rolling grasslands with environmental preservation and the military needs of defence research and training involving the British Army, which for decades been the principal user of the base.

One of the first briefing books plopped on his desk after he returned from overseas dealt with environmental standards and species that required protection, including burrowing owls and kangaroo rats, as well as a variety of flora and fauna.

Poisonous snakes, always unwelcome in Kandahar, are a concern in southeast Alberta, but for different reasons.

Since a portion of the base forms a breeding ground for rattlesnakes, the military has to “take a lot of considerations and briefings with soldiers to make sure that they pay attention as they’re driving along the road, because the snakes like to go on the roads, and not to run over them,” said Claggett.

“You think you’re going to be worrying about this building and that road, and the electricity here. Quite frankly one of the major issues that took up a lot of my initial time and effort was to learn exactly about the unique environment issues here on Suffield.”

Despite being given the green light by the provincial board, Cenovus has not drilled any wells, partly because of the rock-bottom price of natural gas and partly because of restrictions imposed by the military.

“It’s still an important development for us, but we’re not moving quickly to try and develop them with gas prices where they are,” said Brett Harris, a spokesman for the energy company.

In certain areas, National Defence has capped the number of “surface disturbances” at 16 — something that has irked the industry because the definition of a disturbance remains fuzzy.

“That’s still an issue we’re trying to work out with the base and the Department of National Defence,” said Harris. “From our point of view it’s an arbitrary designation.”

The military acknowledges the limit is precautionary and it’s studying the impact.

But there is sustained pressure on National Defence, which is ultimately responsible for the land, to keep the industry at bay, especially in light of an Encana sweet gas well blowout at the base in October 2008.

That incident followed a 90-barrel oil spill the month before at a nearby abandoned Harvest Energy well.

The industry applied in 2009 for permission to drill new wells in the National Wildlife Area of the base, something an environmental review panel found would interfere with the conservation mandate of the region.

Claggett’s predecessor, Lt.-Col. Malcolm Bruce, told hearings that the plan — effectively doubling the number of wells on base property — would clash with training and place a strain on the environment.

The military has focused on developing a sustainable management plan for the base — something Claggett said he hopes to have wrapped up within two years.

“The better part of my career has been around taking care of federal land and basically the people’s land,” he said. “We have a duty and responsibility to take care of it on behalf of them.”

The irony is that one portion of the base — approximately 2,600 square kilometres — was used from the 1940s to the 1960s as a testing range for chemical weapons.

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