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Not In Anyone’s Backyard

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Issue: 55 Section: Agriculture Geography: West Alberta Topics: Mining, agriculture

October 11, 2008

Not In Anyone’s Backyard

Farmers in Alberta growing rural resistance to development

by Scott Harris

Sherritt's project would see the land of over 100 farmers turned into a giant coal strip mine. Photo: Bob Prodor / bobprodor.com

EDMONTON, ALBERTA–For much of its century-long history, the Schultz family farmstead has been a centre of community for farmers near Tofield, a place where people have gathered to pass time and bond with one another.

“The old farmstead here was always a very social spot in the old days,” recalls Brian Schultz, the current operator of the heritage farm located about 80 kilometres southeast of Edmonton, which has been his family’s home since 1904. “Ball games and snooker tournaments on the porch, square dances, strawberry socials, box socials, whatever. Our family has always been very community-oriented.”

It’s a tradition that Schultz has continued to this day, and for the last weekend of June he once again opened his farm to locals and what he calls “import people” from the city alike, as he has done since 1998, for the Wild Oats and Notes Music Festival.

While the festival is still about bringing the community together to enjoy good music and good company, there were also indications of an uneasiness lurking beneath the idyllic rural scene.

Snippets of conversation on the grass were just as likely to be about air quality concerns and baseline water testing as about the Ben Sures set. Chloroplast signs reading “Say No to Sherritt” and “EPCOR ... never mined” shared space on the barn walls with the BBQ price list. Tucked into the corner of the site, amidst the Canadian-flag-adorned folding chairs and colourful blankets, was a small tent staffed by volunteers from VOCAL, the Voice of Community and Land society, to which the proceeds of the festival were donated. They were there selling memberships and encouraging signatures on a petition to stop a controversial project that would see the land of over 100 farmers in the area, including the historic Schultz homestead, turned into a giant coal strip mine.

Opposition to the proposed $2.5 billion Dodds-Roundhill Coal Gasification Plant in Beaver County is just one example of a rising tide of community opposition to rampant oil, gas and energy development in rural Alberta.

Groups have sprouted up in Whitecourt and Peace River to oppose proposals to build Alberta’s first nuclear power plant. The Lavesta Area Group’s ongoing fight against powerlines in the central corridor was catapulted to front-page news when it was revealed that the now-defunct Energy and Utilities Board hired spies to keep tabs on them. Residents of the industrial heartland northeast of Edmonton are fighting the construction of up to nine upgraders to refine tar-sands oil.

“In Alberta now, it’s almost like being in a war zone. We’re getting hit left, right and centre,” said Schultz, himself a member of VOCAL, of the situation outside the province’s urban centres. “We are an energy province, there’s no doubt about it, but wow, we say yes too easy. We say yes way too easy for the short-term gain. That’s Alberta."

Saying yes to the Dodds-Roundhill project would radically change the face of the area around Schultz’s farm. If approved, over 300 square kilometres of agricultural land — roughly half the size of Edmonton — would be strip mined over a 40-year period to produce the coal needed to feed Canada’s first commercial coal-gasification plant. It would likely mean the destruction of an aquifer that lies beneath the land and currently provides water to farms in the area.

The plant would turn the coal into synthetic gas (syngas) — in amounts equivalent to a billion barrels of oil — to be used for a range of applications, including as fuel, a feedstock for the petrochemical industry or as a replacement for natural gas in refineries and bitumen upgraders.

While a spokesman from Sherritt’s corporate affairs department indicated no media relations spokespeople were available to speak, Sherritt’s January 2007 public disclosure document on the project outlines what Sherritt sees as the need for the facility: “The development of Alberta’s vast oil sands resource has resulted in increased demands for natural gas to produce steam for bitumen recovery and as a source of hydrogen for bitumen upgrading. ... The production of syngas through coal gasification provides alternatives to the use of natural gas to produce steam and hydrogen for bitumen extraction and upgrading.”

While Schultz says the community has been told the gas will ultimately feed the plants planned for "Upgrader Alley” northeast of Edmonton, the number of details which have changed since Sherritt first proposed the project two years ago means he’s not convinced that’s what will necessarily happen in the end.

“We don’t know — projects take so long to go, by the time this one’s ready to go it might not have anything to do with Fort Saskatchewan at all. They may produce electricity right there, throw it into the new grids that they’re talking about and send it right down to the United States.”

Schultz says one of his frustrations is that there appears to be no room in the process for the citizens who own the resource to decide how to best use it.

“This business decision is being made by private companies,” he says. “It has nothing to do with you as a citizen of Edmonton or the provincial government or the city of Edmonton saying, ‘Look, we’re short of power. We need more power to run our own lightbulbs or run our vacuum cleaners,’ or whatever. I actually wouldn’t be against that too much.”

He adds that the recent rise in food prices around the world, and a greater focus on local eating through approaches like the 100-mile diet, should be sending the message that while coal is an important resource, so is the food grown in the area around Edmonton.

“We’re treating this as if we’re the last generation, but this is not the last generation that’s going to raise food in this country. It’s not,” he says emphatically. “The price of food is going up all the time. We can’t really afford to be using our land for this type of thing. I think food’s fairly important. I think energy is important too, but not at all costs.”

Bill Sears, the chair of VOCAL, is the third generation to live on his thousand-acre family farm, located about a mile from Schultz’s land. His hundred-year-old farm will also be consumed by the strip mine if it goes ahead.

While part of the proposal includes a reclamation process which Sherritt says will allow farmers to return to farm their land after the mining is complete, Sears says he’s under no illusions.

“Sherritt will say it won’t be destroyed, Sherritt says it will be reclaimed. I say it will be destroyed. Our homes would be gone. Our farms would be gone. The trees would be gone. The wetlands would be gone. The natural areas would be gone. It would all be turned into a strip mine,” he laments, in a calm but indignant tone.

“There probably can be some argument made that it can be reclaimed for some sort of an agricultural production ... but you can’t reclaim what you see here, which is the buildings and the trees,” he says, gesturing around. “You know, that tree took a hundred years to grow, so you’re not going to reclaim that tree and you’re not going to reclaim our yards and our homes and all the infrastructure that goes with that. And you’re not going to reclaim our community, because our community will be gone.”

Sears sees VOCAL’s work to stop that future from becoming a reality as part of the same battle being waged all over the province.

“This is just one part of the thing that’s happening in Alberta. This is connected to the tar sands that are connected to the upgraders that are connected to this, that are connected to powerlines, pipelines, all the development that’s happening in the province.”

He has attended some of the recent hearings on Petro-Canada’s proposed upgrader in Sturgeon County and has met with residents of Upgrader Alley. He says that there he heard concerns that had a familiar ring.

“You know, they’re the same sorts of people — just ordinary farmers that want to be farming but are forced into this situation to protect their land,” he says. “You know, they talk about all the same things that we talk about: community, land, family values. But they’re forced into this.”

The knowledge that his family farm could be destroyed to produce a product that could go to fuel upgraders that might displace farmers in another part of the province only makes the pill more bitter to swallow for Sears. On the other hand, not producing the gas may make the natural gas in the Beaufort Sea valuable enough to finally make the Mackenzie Gas Project feasible, or could tilt things in favour of nuclear power, potentially impacting the people of Whitecourt or Peace River. Because of that, Sears says the haphazard approach of leaving these decisions to industry alone is the wrong way to go.

“The message we try to get out is, ‘What do the people of the province think?’ Ultimately the people of the province will have to decide what they see for the future of the province,” he says. “Do we continue this pace of development and continue the degradation of the landscape and the environment? How long do we do that? So in 40 years we mine this area out. The coal continues south. In 40, 50, 60, 100 years do we want to mine out a good portion of Central Alberta?

“We’ve got to start thinking about what comes down the road,” he continues. “What are we leaving for our kids? But that’s for the people of the province to decide. Because industry will develop — that’s their job. Government’s job and people’s job is to say how we want that development to take place.”

To that end, Sears says, VOCAL is talking to everyone who will listen about what’s happening in the area and meeting with as many MLAs as they can to let them know about local opposition to the project. He says they’re getting a good reception, especially from newer Conservative MLAs.

When I ask Sears about the reaction the group has received from their own MLA, the familiarity that is a reality of rural politics — where some of the impacted farmers are on a first-name basis with the premier — shows through.

“We’ve had good meetings with Mr. Stelmach. Of course, he’s known as Ed in this area. He listened very politely to us. There’s a lot of other pressures on him too. He’s the premier of a province that’s very dependent on the energy industry and it’s very important for them for money. Alberta does well and that’s a lot of pressure to [not] turn that tap off.”

Still, Sears hopes that Stelmach’s own rural background might make him more receptive to the concerns of landowners.

“I hope so. I hope so. Ed talks a lot about community and about roots and heritage and the value of his farm, so those are the same things that hit home when something like this happens,” Sears says. “He talks a lot about doing what’s right. So, we believe we’re doing what’s right and hopefully we can convince him that a project like this isn’t right.”

But Schultz says that finding political solutions is a problem because of the deep roots Stelmach’s party enjoys in rural Alberta generally, and in his Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville riding — where Stelmach received 77.6 per cent of the vote in the last election — specifically. He worries that many people in the area will continue to vote Conservative no matter what happens.

“Here in Conservative country, you know, jeez, I think the Conservative Party, they could probably kidnap your first-born son and I think the person would still vote for ‘em. We don’t have the ability to vote for someone else. We just don’t have any challengers.” But Schultz agrees that a political solution is their best chance to stop the mine, given the history of the rubber-stamp approvals process in the province.

“We know that once it gets to the hearing process you’re a done turkey. We have to change the decision before it gets into the hearing, because if you get into the decision-making process through the regulatory process, once it’s there you’re toast. Once you’re there in the province of Alberta you’re a done deal; you might as well give up and let ‘em do it.”

Construction on the project was originally slated to begin in 2009 and production by 2012, but the community was given a brief reprieve in late May when Sherritt announced it was putting its plans for Dodds-Roundhill on hold due to uncertainty about greenhouse-gas regulations in the province.

Mike Gibbs, a media spokesperson for the City of Edmonton-owned EPCOR, which announced in November 2007 that it had signed an agreement to provide power generation, water and wastewater treatment services for the project, says that as a result of the delay EPCOR is no longer involved in Dodds-Roundhill.

“At this point EPCOR has stopped work on the project,” says Gibbs, who admits he can’t say much more than that. “It doesn’t mean that it won’t go ahead, but as of right now EPCOR is not involved in the project and we will reassess once Sherritt completes its own assessment of the project.”

While Sears is pleased to hear that EPCOR isn’t working on the project, at least for the time being, he says the delay announced by Sherritt hasn’t caused members of the community opposed to the project to rest on their laurels.

On July 15, members of VOCAL met with Sherritt representatives and came away with the message that the company intends to proceed with the project by bringing forward their application in late 2008 or early 2009.

“They are saying that they are still very committed to the project, that they think the project is a very good project and they think that it’s badly needed, in their words,” he says.

“There was no beating around the bush. There wasn’t their talk that they had before about 'How do we make this project work for you?’ That was always their tack before, ‘How do we make this project so it’s acceptable to you?’ And we just say, ‘Well, just go away.’ But they didn’t take that tack this time. They took the tack that this project is going to go, and it was more or less, I think, ‘Be prepared for the fight.’ Which is not anything we didn’t expect.”

But Sears remains optimistic that the mine can be stopped, just as a similar one proposed for the area in the ‘70s was.

“I’m very hopeful. I really believe that the tide is starting to turn some in Alberta. Farmland is being looked at as more valuable than it was, with all of a sudden we have a food crisis, two years ago we didn’t have that. All of a sudden global warming is becoming a bigger issue. All of a sudden CO2 is becoming a bigger issue. These things are in the press, people are talking about it. I’m hopeful that we’re going to start moving in a direction that will take us away from our reliance on fossil fuels, and hopefully, maybe this can be a first step towards that.”

Scott Harris is News Editor at Edmonton's Vue Weekly, where a version of this article was originally published.

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