Water Is Life: Rural Albertans Speak Out
On October 6, Women for Rights and Empowerment hosted a forum in Edmonton to discuss problems related to the energy sector of the economy and the issue of Who Decides? The cartel parties are engaged in a great deal of Alberta-bashing. The forum provided an opportunity for workers directly involved in the oil and gas industry, and people who live in the communities where extraction is taking place to speak in their own name and raise their concerns. Renewal Update has published the speech given there by André Vachon, a pipeline builder and the MLPC candidate in Edmonton Manning.
As well, two women activists from Clearwater County gave an extremely informative presentation on the fight of the people of Clearwater County to protect the drinking water of the Prairies, and expose the reality of “fracking” operations in their community. A very lively discussion took place with many people joining in to ask questions and give their views. The presenters immediately dispelled the idea that the issue is whether one is “for or against oil and gas.” The issues they are raising concern everyone, including the families in their community and elsewhere who make their living from oil and gas.
Residents of Clearwater County have organized successfully in the past to defend the health and safety of their community. They formed the Clearwater Coalition in 2000 to intervene in an application by Shell Canada to drill a sour gas well which posed serious hazards to the community. The Alberta Energy and Utilities Board agreed with the Clearwater Coalition and issued a decision that Shell’s application was not in the public interest because public safety could not be adequately assured.
When people learned in 2018 that the global energy giant Repsol had applied to extract 1.8 billion gallons of water annually from the Clearwater River for an enormous hydraulic fracturing (fracking) project, they went into action again. The Clearwater River flows into the North Saskatchewan River, the source of drinking water for most of the Prairies. Withdrawing large amounts of water for fracking affects everyone on the Prairies. Fracking in their community directly affects people’s health, as well as that of the fisheries and wildlife.
Two women in their group went from door to door in their community to bring people together to raise their concerns and opposition to Repsol’s application. Their work shows how people in rural Alberta are organizing, through their own efforts, to demand that their communities have a say in matters that affect them. They are standing up for the public interest at a time when governments are equating the public interest, national interest and even national security with the most powerful private interests.
Disappearing the Public Interest
The activists from Clearwater County found that the regulatory process has been drastically and dramatically altered since they last engaged. The conception that the regulator that approves energy projects must uphold the public interest has been completely destroyed. In 2013, the Alberta government enacted the Responsible Energy Development Act. This Act replaced the Energy Resources Conservation Board with the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER). The legislation removed all mention of the public interest, and with it even the limited opportunities that had once existed for the people of Alberta to intervene or appeal a decision on energy projects.
Now, in order to appeal a decision, a person must be “directly and adversely affected” by a project. In the case of the licence to the global energy company Repsol, the AER determined that this was restricted to people who live on the Clearwater River. The previous legislation permitted appeals to the Environmental Appeals Board, an arms’ length quasi-judicial tribunal. In addition, appellants could be eligible to receive funding to prepare their case. Now the AER reviews its own decisions. People who are “directly and adversely affected” can appeal to the same regulator who made the decision, with entirely predictable results. Appeals through the courts are restricted to questions of law or jurisdiction. With no public interest test in the legislation, from a legal standpoint, there is no public interest to be violated.
As the activists from Clearwater summed up the situation, the regulator is funded, controlled and ruled by the global oil and gas private interests. The regulator can decide when and whether to hold hearings and who can participate. The regulator is not even required to report annually, to the legislature or publicly. The AER approved Repsol’s application in spring 2019.
The direct experience of the residents of Clearwater County is that the people of Alberta have no say in matters which greatly affect them. One presenter had direct experience with how they are deprived of any decision-making power or even the ability to initiate serious discussion.
The rule of the oligarchs is such that raising concerns about the decisions taken by big oil and gas is considered anti-Albertan and people are being accused of being “funded by foreign interests.” This has gone so far that the United Conservative provincial government has openly declared war on anyone who dares to challenge the “right” of the oligarchs to decide everything. It is equally clear that the demand of big oil and gas for “regulatory reform” is intended to permit these oligopolies to act with impunity, and to deprive communities immediately affected and all who recognize that water is life of any say whatsoever.
Water Is Life
Members of the Clearwater County community fought and continue to expose Repsol’s 10-year licence to take 1.8 billion gallons of water annually from the Clearwater River. To put this in perspective, this is equal to the drinking water for a year for 2.5 million people. But unlike drinking water, the water Repsol has been given by the provincial government is lost to the hydrologic cycle forever. With glacial melt in decline and no longer supplying tributaries like the Clearwater River, this is an even greater concern. On average, around 70 per cent of the water extracted never returns to the surface. What does return is contaminated with fracking fluid, including a mix of toxic chemicals that is considered “proprietary,” silica, radioactive elements, and salts. This mixture is then injected into deep wells and also lost to the hydrologic cycle. There have been reports that vehicles transporting this water have been seen disposing of it at night on farmers’ fields.
The presenters from the Clearwater group explained the dangers of fracking which scientific studies have repeatedly linked to groundwater contamination, methane leaks, earthquakes, and public health issues. Fracking involves the injection of massive quantities of water, chemicals and silica at high pressure into shale deposits to release the gas and oil trapped within the rock. Fracking involves drilling an oil or gas well vertically and then horizontally into a shale formation. Almost all the world’s fracking operations are in the U.S. and Canada, and account for about two-thirds of all new natural gas production there.
Health and Safety of Workers and the Community
Silica is a known lung carcinogen and also causes silicosis, a preventable but incurable lung disease which can cause disability and death. Fracking has only become widely used in the past 10 to 15 years. Since it takes 20 or more years for silicosis to develop, the impact on the health of workers and communities where fracking takes place would not become evident until their health has already been severely compromised. The bitter experience of workers in the asbestos mines, insulators and others exposed to asbestos in their work is a stark warning as to how known dangers to workers are hidden and suppressed, and how willing the global oligarchs are to deliberately sacrifice the workers.
The forum of Women for Rights and Empowerment concluded with remarks from Indigenous activist, author, poet, and producer of the documentary Sacred Spirit of Water, Morningstar Mercredi, and her powerful reading of a poem celebrating the rising of women for their rights.
1. See “An Idea of What Our Work Life Is Like,” Renewal Update, October 12, 2019.
2. The Kenney government will soon open its “war room” and has announced that it will include “a research group, a data analysis wing and a rapid response team to challenge misinformation in real time while promoting information about Alberta’s oil and gas sector.” In this environment, people are finding ways to continue to act while still being mindful of the potential impact on family members.