LETHBRIDGE - It's been a whirlwind 24 hours when it comes to urban drilling in Lethbridge.
No Drilling Lethbridge, a small volunteer group of local residents opposed to oil drilling and fracking within city limits, posted that drilling had been discovered in West Lethbridge on Sunday, Feb. 3.
They found that the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) granted a two-year licence to Tamarack Acquisition Corporation on Nov. 21, 2018, to drill a production well within Lethbridge City limits.
This was news to Lethbridge City Council, which only learned of the community concerns via e-mail and social media over the weekend, and officially from city administration late Monday morning.
Councillor Jeffery Coffman during Monday's council meeting asked staff for some details about the drilling, and staff confirmed hydraulic fracking was taking place.
Mayor Chris Spearman delivered a statement outside of council chambers a short time later, saying an application was filed by Tamarack through Alberta Energy and the City of Lethbridge administration on Oct. 26, 2018, but notice of this filing was not passed on to city council or the city manager.
"A change in administrative process will be put in place for any future applications. In 2012 and 2013, city council made its position clear on the issue of urban drilling through a formal resolution which stated opposition to oil and gas production within city limits. Had we been notified, we would've had two weeks to file a concern. City council will be filing a letter to any and all urban drilling in the City of Lethbridge in the future."
At every opportunity, the city has notified the provincial regulator and company representatives that they are opposed to any new oil and gas drilling within city limits.
"We believe now as we did then that such activity would effectively sterilize developable urban land and burden the city with additional costs by creating the need for setbacks to separate wells and underground pipelines from future neighbourhoods. Although the city has taken this formal, public stance, we recognize as a municipality we have no legal authority to stand in the way of the AER that ultimately grants approval to this or any other company to drill within our city limits," Spearman continued.
"As a council, we emphasize we're not opposed to oil and gas exploration generally, our specific concern is about the negative impacts for urban municipalities and their residents if oil and gas drilling is allowed to proceed within their boundaries. Council originally took this stance on urban drilling because we see it as an ongoing issue in Alberta. There are already other cases elsewhere in the province where drilling rights have been sought and awarded within urban boundaries. We're disappointed that we weren't made aware that a drilling application was submitted and is now taking place within the city limits."
The planning department originally received the file but did not pass the information along to council.
While the municipality can't overrule the AER, Spearman did say that if they had been informed, they could've filed a letter of opposition, but they missed the opportunity to do that.
Director of Property Services Jeff Greene took over at that point to explain why the information was never passed along.
"Administration was made aware on October 26th that Tamarack was looking at drilling another well. Our processes in place, as the Mayor mentioned, we have no authority with respect to the approval or not. So, from our standpoint we looked at it from a technical perspective and made the determination that there was little that we could do so we didn't pass that information on to City Council," Greene explained, adding they will be putting in a protocol to ensure that council is informed of these applications in the future.
But since council could have stated their opposition, similarly as they did when Golden Key came into town a number of years ago with a similar project, why wasn't that information relayed?
"One key difference between this application and Golden Key is Golden Key's application was for an area that was within an area that was going to be for future development," Green continued. "This particular well is on a well-site that already has three other wells on it, so the context is somewhat different than the Golden Key scenario."
Environment Minister and Lethbridge-West MLA Shannon Phillips arrived at City Hall not long after the Mayor began to speak, and she took to the podium to discuss the drilling.
"The citizens of Lethbridge made themselves heard when there were applications to the AER on the matter of oil and gas exploration within the city limits and in close proximity to either existing residences or planned residences. As a result of that community concern, and not just in Lethbridge as there were other issues that faced this issue as well, our government committed to taking action on that. It was part of our 2015 platform, and one of the changes that we did make was that municipalities get automatic standing within AER proceedings with respect to oil and gas developments within their boundaries."
The only issue is that regulatory change did not take effect until Jan. 1of this year, so it doesn't apply to this application.
"However, the municipality was, in fact, notified, and so regardless of if we had made that change or not the notification did occur."
While it's true that a municipality may not veto a proposed development, something Phillips says is not an appropriate jurisdiction for a municipality, what the province did do is allow municipalities automatic standing.
"Everyone in a regulatory process has a right to a process. The citizens of Lethbridge have a right to be heard. That's why we took the action that we did, so the proponents understand the context in which they are going to go in and propose to do business in oil and gas exploration. Proponents have a responsibility to engage with citizens on that. It would appear that with the two-week comment period that the proponent, while following the letter of the law, potentially did not uphold the spirit of the conversation that came out of the City of Lethbridge some years ago," Phillips said.
She believes it's incumbent on the proponent to ensure that they have good communication with the citizens of this city so that people aren't unaware, and things aren't flying under the radar.
Moving forward for any subsequent development, the province's regulatory change does apply to this and other instances within city limits.
Because the company followed the rules as they were laid out, Phillips wouldn't say they were at fault but did offer some advice.
"It would seem to me that in order for orderly activity to take place in the realm of exploration and production within city limits, that some conversation and outreach to the municipality and citizens of Lethbridge would be appropriate in this instance. Simply because these issues are so close to the hearts of so many residents, in particular, West Lethbridge. We went through a period of years where this issue was the story in this city because people were worried about their property values and industrial activity in their backyards so close to schools, churches and homes," Phillips stated.
Pressed further about how this could happen in the first place, Spearman spoke up stating that council is going to view this as a learning experience.
"Within the city, we're going to accept the responsibility, and in the future, it'll be handled differently. Council will be made aware of it, and then we will make the citizens aware of it. We're going to review the processes, we're going to look at the upcoming applications and we're going to see what role the city can play to inform citizens who might be affected."
When Phillips was asked whether she was for or against the project, she deferred to her stance that people have a right to a process before stating that she opposed the Golden Key project.
"In this time of certain divisions in politics, that was one time where people across political lines came together as a city to oppose what could have been quite significant industrial development in very close proximity to schools, churches and municipal infrastructure. That was a position I was very proud to articulate on behalf of my constituents, and with respect to this particular development, I think we will have to wait and see what the civic engagement is on this and what kinds of developments are proposed adjacent or subsequent to this one. This is part of a well that's been there for a while, so I think I'd have to get more information before I could say one way or the other."
What comes next is an open-ended question. Council will be meeting in-camera to discuss the application and what options they have on Monday.
In the meantime, Spearman recommends anyone who is opposed to this project make their voices heard however they can.
"I don't think they need to wait until the city acts, certainly there's information available on social media as far as how to act and who to contact. I'd encourage the citizens who believe that this shouldn't be taking place to act right away, and certainly, proponents have the same rights."
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