Saturday, January 5, 2013

Starting the New Year with good news

snowy owl flying over the lost grasslands of the Regina Plains

Just confirmed some really terrific news for one of the most important pieces of native grassland in Canada, the Suffield National Wildlife Area in Alberta, and for grassland conservation in general. A day or two before New Year's, a friend mentioned Cenovus (Encana) had lost in its bid to honeycomb Suffield NWA with more than 1200 gas wells. Over the past thirty years, 1154 wells have already been drilled in the NWA, but Encana wanted to double that in three years and then do a bunch of ditching and ploughing to build a web of pipelines tying them all together.

Apparently, Environment Canada made the decision to turn down the application in November, but no real announcement was made. The decision appears on the Environmental Assessment Agency website, but it is so buried I doubt anyone other than the webmaster has been able to find it. I had help from someone who knew where to look.[After first posting this I found out from my friend Branimir (see comment below) that there was a media release. Take a look here.]

a shot of the South Saskatchewan River winding through Suffield NWA, courtesy of Nature Canada, one of the groups that succeeded in securing this important decision for all Canadians

Reading the legal decision I still had trouble believing it so I checked with Cliff Wallis, Vice-President of the Alberta Wilderness Association. Cliff is a tireless defender of native grassland and was involved in defending Suffield. I knew he'd have the scoop. Here is some of what he wrote back to me in an email:

It is as ironclad as can be. The wording is bizarre and caused us some consternation at first but legal scholars interpret it as a big win!

Cenovus will continue to operate the existing wells and we will be participating in DND led management planning process whereby we hope to also (over time) gradually phase out those existing wells. The new wells would have meant an unbelievable amount of new and ongoing activity. It will be very difficult for Cenovus now to even operate, do workovers etc. as they did not play ball and continue to be intransigent. We have offered them olive branches but they keep slamming doors in our face even when we try to work on existing problems.

We knew that with low gas prices, Cenovus had no intention of drilling those wells in the near term. That was confirmed when we received the decision and Cenovus commented (kind of sour grapes). Anyway it was a win. Delay sometimes means we get what we want in the end regardless of what is said. This delay was a big win on the grassland conservation landscape and I think will be interpreted as such decades from now. It is a credit to the hard work of naturalists, the public and several ENGOs at the local, provincial (including Nature Sask) and national levels (Nature Canada). We had an incredible amount of support on this issue.
These are things we have to make sure we celebrate and keep in mind as we try to defend other pieces of native grassland from gas and oil development. Now we have a precedent we can refer to. Suffield is a marvelous piece of grassland, crucial to so many prairie species, but so are the PFRA pastures in Saskatchewan. Many (Wellington for example) have already been severely damaged by resource development, but there are other pastures that oil and gas is just now moving into and many more that are on their agenda. Some people speculate that the entire plan to divest the PFRA pastures was a sneaky way to remove federal protection from these pastures (both environmental assessment processes and Species at Risk legislation), clearing the way for for hassle-free resource development.

That may sound awfully cynical but not beyond the moral order now in charge of this nation's natural resources. If Suffield had been under provincial jurisdiction, where assessment processes are less rigorous, Encana would almost certainly been given the green light for its 1200 wells and network of pipelines.

the Regina Plains has lost 99.7 percent of its native grassland but still attracts these owls most winters


  1. Hello Trevor

    Sorry for not alerting you earlier, here is the relevant CEAA press release from November 30th:


  2. Thanks Branimir--I will revise the post to include that.


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