A BATTLE is raging between environmentalists and the Canadian oil and natural-gas industry. It's a fight for the future of Alberta's rugged Eastern slopes - a long, thin zone where prairie foothills are transformed into the majestic Canadian Rocky Mountains.
There's gas beneath the Eastern slopes. And with most easy-to-reach reserves in Alberta already tapped, the fast-rising demand for natural gas from the northwest United States is pushing exploration into this difficult and beautiful terrain.
Seismic testing, drilling platforms, access roads, drill crews, trucks, and miles of pipe are all nosing their way into the province's last wilderness areas.
In the past 50 years, more than 200,000 wells have been drilled across most of Alberta. But new drilling techniques are opening even areas once inaccessible. More than 7,000 new wells were drilled in Alberta last year. Between January and March, more than 10,000 new wells were approved.
This drilling surge is geared toward satisfying gas exports but will likely exhaust Canada's remaining gas supplies within a couple of decades, environmentalists say, though reserve levels are debatable. What isn't debatable is that American consumers are turning en masse to gas.
Canada itself consumed 2.3 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of gas last year, according to the National Energy Board in Calgary. Exports to the US were 2.2 tcf, an increase of 8.6 percent over the previous year. In the past four years, exports to the US grew 33 percent. Alberta alone accounts for more than 80 percent of Canada's annual gas production.
But whether the natural-gas boom is a boon for Alberta depends on whom you talk to. The oil industry cites the thousands of jobs being created. Environmentalists say satisfying the demand means dicing up the last of Alberta's wilderness. They also contend that marketing waning gas reserves as ``cheap, clean'' fuel ignores the environmental consequences.
``The average American consumer doesn't know about the environmental costs up here,'' says Dianne Pachal, conservation director for the Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA) in Calgary. ``Most think the Canadian Rockies are an environmental wilderness. But the truth is that on the Canadian side of the border, we're losing our wilderness. The only thing off limits to oil and gas exploration are the national parks.''
Ms. Pachal and other environmentalists say because environmental costs are not factored into the cost of producing gas, prices are kept artificially low, undermining development of alternative energy sources such as wind and solar power.
Environmentalists are now challenging Alberta's provincial government to set aside about a dozen wilderness areas representing samples of the province's unique ecosystems. Doing so would add about 2 percent to 3 percent to the roughly 9 percent of the province currently protected in national parks from development, they say.
``Most oil companies will agree in principle that some places should be protected,'' says Wendy Francis, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. ``But it's hard to get any oil companies to put their finger on a map and say, `This is a place we agree not to go.' ''
Alberta Premier Ralph Klein has promised to begin evaluating the remaining wilderness areas for permanent protection from development. But so far, the Klein government's Special Places 2000 plan has languished, opposed by the powerful oil and cattle industries.
Oil-industry officials reject the notion that they are either insensitive to wilderness values or against the plan. ``We support Special Places 2000 - we want it to survive,'' says Douglas Bruchet, vice president of environment, health, and safety for the Calgary-based Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP). ``The problem is that you have some environment groups that you will never convince of our needs. Greenpeace and others say we don't have to do any more drilling at all.''
In the absence of Special Places 2000, all but the national parks are vulnerable to oil and gas exploration, environmentalists say. They have found few regulatory allies. Legal defeats have been commonplace.
Board rejects argument
Environmental forces recently lost a key case in a hearing before the National Energy Board, in which they tried to link gas exports to the damage done to wilderness areas from gas drilling. The board rejected the argument.
Last month, however, environmentalists were buoyed by a rare regulatory victory. On Sept. 8, the provincial Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) ruled, for perhaps the first time in its history, to prevent an oil company - Amoco Canada Ltd. - from drilling in an area that it had leased and tested. The company had wanted to drill 20 wells in the ecologically sensitive ``Whaleback'' region, about 75 miles southwest of Calgary. Billed as the province's last untouched portion of a grassy, wildlife-rich ecosystem called ``montane,'' the Whaleback is only 91 square miles in area. The land was once a park, but has not been protected since the 1930s.
Saving the Whaleback from drilling was a big victory for environmental groups and most of the eight ranching families living in Maycroft, a community nestled in the Whaleback foothills. The wells would have been placed, almost literally, in the ranchers' backyards.
Yet it is a bittersweet and perhaps temporary victory for Judy Huntley and her husband, James Tweedie. ``The decision last month gave us back our lives - at least for a little while,'' Mr. Tweedy says. ``But it was only 10 days before Amoco was calling people again, trying to work a new deal.''
The ERCB decision against Amoco is a broad ruling that implies that the government must establish unequivocal guidelines for the Whaleback and other areas. But, technically, there is nothing preventing Amoco from applying for a drilling permit again. And at a recent meeting between the ranchers and Amoco officials, Amoco indicated it had no intention of giving up. ``They put up a big map and said, `All right, where do you want the wells,' '' says Ms. Huntley. Amoco representatives did not return Monitor phone calls.
A blunt approach
The irony, Tweedie and Huntley say, is that some oil companies are probably embarrassed by Amoco's blunt approach and would favor some government accommodation for the remaining wilderness areas. This seems to be true in the case of Calgary-based Husky Oil Ltd., a privately held company cited by some environmental groups for its generally progressive approach to drilling and exploration. Some of the care it is showing for the environment is on display two hours south of Calgary, atop the 8,036 foot-high Plateau Mountain.
Russian oil man Anatoly Kulakov and eight or nine colleagues recently visited the mountain to see how Canadian oil men deal with environmental issues. The mountaintop is designated a provincial ecological reserve, restricted to scientists - and Husky oil men. The scientists study the glacial ice caves, permafrost, and rare White Bark Pine. The oil men come daily to monitor the sour (poison) natural gas well.
When the last gas is extracted, the well will be dismantled and the road bulldozed back to as near the original as possible. While the Russians marvel over the absence of spilled oil and derelict equipment, others are surprised there is a well up here at all. ``I'm very much impressed with their ability to get this equipment up here,'' says Serge Popov, a Siberian official. ``We could never do this.''
But the fact that Canadian oil companies can carve steep roads up remote mountaintops doesn't impress environmentalists. It's just par for the course, they say. And even a Husky Oil official admits he has problems with carving a road to a gas well on the Plateau Mountain reserve.
``I would argue that we never should have been drilling up here in the first place,'' says Barry Worbets, Husky's environmental officer. ``But those decisions were made decades ago. If the decision were to be made today, under today's guidelines, it probably wouldn't have been done.''
Not far from the base of the mountain, the Russians walk around another gas exploration rig. Al Hugo, Husky's drilling foreman, explains that the drilling mud is recycled and that there is an impermeable mat under the rig to prevent seepage into the water table. All waste is trucked out of the area.
Despite these efforts, building roads to accommodate rigs inevitably causes damage, environmentalists say. Future flash points, they say, include the Willmore Wilderness Park and the Little Smokey valley, both north of Calgary.
Passage of Special Places 2000 could lead to a more peaceful coexistence between the two groups, both oil executives and environmentalists say. But without it, and lacking the political will to mediate a deal, many expect the fight to intensify.
``I would like to think that we could settle this fight,'' says Doug Bruchet, the CAPP executive. ``We've got a committee with environmentalists and oil companies sitting on it to discuss which areas should be out of bounds.''
But without Special Places 2000, he says, there is little hope for significant compromise to take place. ``I think this fight is heated now and it will remain that way,'' he says.