Rancher John Cross stands next to a wellhead that is surrounded by a heavy tarp and bagged perimeter.
Two hills of soil are piled to the side, ready to be bulldozed and graded back in the same layers in which they were removed. His pasture grass is undamaged and his creek untouched.
The area is neat and tidy, with little evidence of the large drilling equipment and heavy trucks once parked there.
This site is proof that oil and gas companies can drill with minimal impact on the environment, says Cross. But it's up to the landowner to take charge and oversee the operation to ensure it is conducted in a responsible manner, he adds.
|Wendy Dudley, Business Edge|
|John Cross was able to strike a unique land-use agreement with Compton Petroleum.|
"You have to be in control. It's your land. You are the landlord and the oil company is the tenant," says Cross, who struck a unique land-use agreement with Compton Petroleum, one of the largest mineral-rights holders in southern Alberta.
"Too many landowners let themselves be mowed over by (oil companies)," said Cross, who runs the A7 Ranche, west of Nanton.
Companies usually conduct seismic operations, then proceed with drilling, and if oil and gas is present, a pipeline is built. Agreements with landowners are usually struck at the beginning of each phase.
But not in this case. Cross wouldn't allow seismic studies until an agreement was in place to cover the entire operation, from seismic through to production.
"Seismic is just the tip of the iceberg. I wanted to know what the impact of the entire operation would be before I agreed to anything. And I wanted to make sure the company would take responsibility for any contamination."
The current surface-rights agreement used by most companies doesn't go far enough, Cross says. "It doesn't give the landowner enough tools to deal with a company not living up to its due diligence."
Cross is even-tempered, and while he is passionate about his land, he sticks to the facts, an attitude that impressed Compton officials.
"It was so refreshing to work with John, because he was willing to sit down with us. He didn't come right out and say no," says Compton vice-president Tim Millar.
"You can't get emotional. And there's no point in turning them down flat," agrees Cross.
If a landowner refuses to let an oil company drill, the issue goes to a hearing before the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board. "If you go to a hearing, you've lost. You'll come out with less conditions in your favour," Cross adds.
Cross also advises landowners not to focus just on financial compensation.
"Money is part of it, but I refused to talk money until all my other concerns were met. My priority was my values. I didn't want my land fragmented," he says. "It's an intact working landscape and I wanted it left that way, for the ranch, the water and the wildlife."
Cross hired a lawyer to draw up a land-use agreement that gives him access to the site and company records, if contamination occurs. The company also cannot transfer the lease without Cross's permission, and if a problem occurs, Cross has the right to shut down the operation until the company fixes the problem.
He also demanded Compton wash its machinery before arriving onsite to prevent weed contamination.
An impermeable barrier was placed underneath the drilling rig and the site was bagged to prevent runoff from spills. Compton also removed drilling fluids and cuttings, rather than bury them onsite. An onsite environmental consultant was hired to ensure the contractors lived up to the agreement.
A detailed environmental site assessment was key to the operation's success, Cross notes. Soil layers were measured and then separated into two different hills during removal.
During restoration, the soils will be put back in the same order. "The environmental consultant had authority over the contract. She was onsite every day."
Compton also had to pay Cross for the time he spent in negotiation and his hours spent onsite. It was time and money well spent, says Millar.
"We spent more money in meeting his expectations than if we had gone to a hearing. We went above and beyond the regulations, but we wanted to develop a good relationship."
As it turned out, the well wasn't economical, but Compton hopes its positive relationship with Cross will help its dealings with other landowners in the area. The company's drilling plans for this year include 200 wells on 1,000 sections of land in southern Alberta.
Only a wellhead and tarped area remain at the drilling site on Cross's land. Site restoration will begin after the company agrees not to re-enter the well at a future date.
"I don't want the land disturbed any more than it has to be," Cross says.
Cross's success in dealing with Compton has other area ranchers seeking his advice. With high oil and gas prices, drilling activity has increased throughout Alberta.
Concerned about the fast pace, a number of landowner and surface-rights groups recently formed the Coalition for Alberta's Future.
The organization is seeking responsible drilling and a review of the guidelines. "Guidelines need to be based on science, on environmental assessments," Cross says.
It's important communities come together to deal with the oil companies, adds Cross, who belongs to the Pekisko Group, a member of the coalition. "It's hard if you're trying to do this as an individual. The (company) landmen will wear you down."
Millar recognizes the increasing opposition to resource companies operating in environmentally sensitive areas. Two years ago, the Pekisko Group defeated an application by Vermilion Resources, a Calgary-based oil company, to drill in the foothills south of Longview.
Compton is currently working with several landowners groups in the foothills area after an emotional open house held several months ago.
Landowners at the meeting were frustrated at the lack of information available on how their needs would be met.
"It was a large and diverse group. Everyone has their own concerns and we're trying to address them," Millar says. "You can follow government rules and still not meet personal expectations."
Many ranchers fear seismic lines, drilling, access roads and pipelines will harm native grasses and watersheds.
In working with Cross, "we learned how important it is to start off on the right foot and really listen to the landowners' concerns, to make that commitment to work with them," Millar says.
That may mean moving a rig to a less-sensitive area on the property, or delaying activity until June when certain birds have finished nesting, Millar adds. "We want to develop a good relationship and set a precedent."
(Wendy Dudley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)