Shell Canada Limited is facing a powerful international campaign by environmental groups upset with the company’s plans to explore for more natural gas in the Castle region in southwest Alberta.
Alberta environmentalists, who have lobbied for decades to create a protected wilderness park in the Castle, next door to Waterton Lakes National Park, are being joined in their campaign by influential groups in the U.S. and Europe.
The New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), with 550,000 members, says it will lobby U.S. corporate customers who receive Shell’s exported natural gas to pressure the Calgary-based oil company to stop new development in the Castle.
“It has been a long time of many different kinds of dialogue with Shell, and so far it has been a real ‘talk-and-drill’ game,” said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, a senior lawyer with the NRDC.
But Jan Rowley, Shell’s public affairs manager, said the company’s new seismic exploration program will go ahead as planned this month and will actually help accelerate Shell’s eventual withdrawal from the Castle region.
“We see this (exploration) as a tool that will allow us to adequately plan and make decision around withdrawal,” Rowley said.
“Without that kind of information, it’s very difficult to make that call.”
Even with the new seismic program, Shell will keep a promise it made in 1999 to end all drilling in the Castle’s prime protection zone by 2009, Rowley said. The high-elevation zone, which is environmentally fragile and includes critical wildlife habitat, comprises about 40 per cent of the region.
The Castle, 1,000 square kilometres of mountain and forest land, straddles the B.C.-Alberta border directly north of Waterton Park.
It is an area of stunning natural beauty, home to bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer, mountain goats, grizzly and black bears, cougars and wolves.
The Castle is also a relatively narrow and vitally important corridor for wildlife that ranges throughout the Rocky Mountains.
For more than a century, the area’s rich natural resources have also supported logging, mining, grazing, recreation, and oil and gas development.
There are about 75 producing gas wells in the Castle-Waterton region – most of them owned by Shell Canada.
Shell’s new seismic program, which will continue until September, will look for deep gas deposits throughout the region – including in the prime protection zone.
However, the company has promised not to build any new wellsites or access roads into this protected zone, Rowley said.
Any new gas source that is discovered will be tapped using directional drilling from existing wellsites.
Shell is also promising not to drill more wells in two extremely sensitive locations in the Castle – Prairie Bluff and the deep-canyon Mill Creek area.
And the company will confine any new drilling to existing wellsites at the entrances to the Castle’s half-dozen canyons, Rowley said.
“We’re actually strengthening the commitments that we had already made in terms of our own activities (to protect the area).”
But a member of the Castle-Crown Wilderness Coalition, which wants Shell to stop all new development in the region, said the company’s promises aren’t sufficient to protect the already severely stressed area.
Shell’s existing wellsites “are already in areas that are critical to wildlife and are certainly of major significance for the (bighorn) sheep populations,” said James Tweedie, an area resident.
Dave Poulton, an executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, said it’s impossible for Shell to expand its activities without threatening the environment.
“What the area requires is a law that would protect the region,” he said.
Tweedie noted that Alberta’s Natural Resources Conservation Board, in ruling on an earlier expansion of gas development in the Castle, recommended more protection for the region eight years ago.
The province has never acted on those recommendations, he added.
Susan McManus, a spokesperson for Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, said the department has to balance the interests of all the area residents and industrial, recreational and other users of the Castle.
She said that during Alberta’s Special Places program, which created legally protected parks and ecological reserves throughout the province, the majority of people who live in the Castle didn’t support this designation for their area. The Special Places program ended in 2000.
The department isn’t hearing any demand from area residents that the region be more strongly protected, McManus said.
Forty per cent of the land base is already safeguarded as prime protection zone under the Eastern Slopes policy, she added. The other 60 per cent of the land allows for multiple uses, including industrial and recreational.
Environmentalists say protecting the area by policy has no teeth and isn’t adequately enforced.
They want a wilderness park that would strictly prohibit industrial development and off-road vehicle use.
Lawyer Casey-Lefkowitz at the NRDC said the U.S. group has included the Castle in its worldwide “Biogem” campaign, aimed at achieving legal protection for 12 areas of international ecological significance in North America.
The national wing of the Sierra Club of Canada has joined the fray and is demanding Shell stop all gas exploration in the Castle.
A German conservation group called Robin Wood has launched a campaign in Europe to raise awareness and push for protection.
Environmental groups say that Italian mountain climbing legend Reinhold Messner, who’s a member of the European parliament, has publicly declared his support for protecting the Castle.
Rowley, however, said it would be irresponsible of Shell not to fully develop the gas resource in an environmentally sound way for the benefit of all Albertans, especially given the extensive oilfield infrastructure already in the region.
Shell is taking special precautions with this summer’s new seismic program, she pointed out.
All seismic crews and their equipment will be ferried in and out of the area by helicopter, eliminating off-road vehicle use.
Crews will work on foot and cut only enough tree branches to clear the narrowest possible lines for their seismic equipment.
All crews are also getting special training to avoid rare or endangered plants or animals. And when they’re working in the prime protection zone, they will be accompanied by wildlife biologists to ensure no animals are disturbed.
Shell has also committed to work with forestry officials to ensure there is no net increase in public access to the area, and has started work on its first wellsite in the Castle to be properly abandoned and reclaimed.
But given all the different uses in the Castle, Rowley said, “I think it is going to continue to be a challenge to achieve prime protection for the whole area.”