Lethbridge fights proposed well project in city limits


By Amanda Stephenson, Calgary Herald January 13, 2014

A provincial government review of the policies surrounding urban energy development remains ongoing, even as furious Lethbridge residents sign “No Drilling” petitions and their city council takes a unanimous stand against a proposed well project.

The southern Alberta city, population 90,000, has become ground zero in recent months for the debate over drilling in developed areas. Calgary-based junior Goldenkey Oil Inc. wants to drill three exploratory wells from two locations within city limits on the west side of Lethbridge — approximately one kilometre from the nearest housing development.

“People can see the drilling site very easily from their fences,” said Lethbridge Mayor Chris Spearman. “They’re concerned about property values, they’re concerned about possible side-effects like odour, they’re concerned about possible health issues.”

The proposed wells would be drilled using vertical hydraulic fracturing, a relatively simple process compared to the multi-stage horizontal fracturing that has often been the target of North American “anti-fracking” opponents. Still, the company’s assertions that the project will be safe has done little to calm fears.

A community group calling themselves “No Drilling Lethbridge” has held meetings, launched a petition, and started a letter-writing campaign. And city council itself — which has no say in whether or not the project goes ahead since energy development falls under provincial jurisdiction — has registered its own formal objection with the Alberta Energy Regulator.

“Our real concern is appropriate land use within city boundaries,” said Spearman. “We expect that our residential areas are going to continue to expand in the direction toward those wells. It just really inhibits development.”

Spearman said he wants to see greater powers for municipalities giving them the ability to regulate urban drilling within their own boundaries.

It’s not the first time the issue of energy development within city limits has become heated in Alberta. In 2012, residents of the northwest Calgary neighbourhood of Royal Oak protested plans to drill an oil well just behind a shopping centre. The company, Kaiser Exploration Ltd., eventually decided to move the well more than two kilometres away. The controversy led the provincial government to agree to review whether adequate policies are in place for urban communities when it comes to oil and gas development.

That review is still ongoing, Energy Minister Diana McQueen said on Sunday.

“With the continued growth in our communities we understand a balance needs to be achieved,” said McQueen in an emailed statement. “Planning is underway to engage with key stakeholders, including industry and Alberta municipalities. We also encourage the companies and municipalities to continue to work together to address public concerns.”

David Hill, an independent consultant working on behalf of Goldenkey, said the company has held two open houses in Lethbridge and has set up a website to answer questions about the project. He said the company has been somewhat taken aback by the level of opposition, particularly because Goldenkey has offered to abandon and perform reclamation on the sites whenever the city requires them for development.

“That’s a commitment, from my experience, that is not usually forthcoming from an oil company,” Hill said.

As for the provincial review on urban drilling policies, Hill said Goldenkey welcomes it.

“Something that’s important for an oil company is certainty,” he said. “What are the rules we’re playing by here? In fact, we’ve offered to be part of that review and explain some of the concerns that we’ve heard and also some of the remedies we’ve proposed.”

Goldenkey plans to seek regulatory approval for its project within the next three months.

At its last meeting, Lethbridge city council voted unanimously to invite Goldenkey representatives as well as the provincial government to a special council session aimed at airing community concerns.

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