|Parks and Protected Areas - Suffield Decision Brief
5 February 2009
The following is a brief summary of the Joint Review Panel’s decision (released last week) on the Suffield National Wildlife Area drilling proposal by EnCana; plus some analysis from the perspective of the Suffield Coalition (Alberta Wilderness Association, Federation of Alberta Naturalists, World Wildlife Fund Canada, Nature Saskatchewan, Southern Alberta Group for the Environment, Grasslands Naturalists, and Nature Canada).
CFB Suffield NWA
Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Suffield National Wildlife Area (the NWA) was established in 2003 to protect endangered native prairie and the many species of animals and plants at risk in the area. It is home to more than 1,100 species of plants and animals, including approximately 90 species of concern, 15 of which are federally listed species at risk of extinction. This nationally protected area also contains numerous historical sites such as medicine wheels, bison kill sites, and stone cairns. Since 1971, Canadian Forces Base Suffield, which encompasses the NWA, recognized the fragility of the area and zoned the eastern part of the base out-of-bounds for military training and defence research activities. Suffield is located in Southeastern Alberta, approximately 50 km northwest of Medicine Hat and 250 km southeast of Calgary.
EnCana’s Proposed Project
EnCana Corporation proposes to drill, over a three-year period, up to 1,275 new shallow gas wells within the boundary of the CFB Suffield NWA. The project is in addition to the existing natural gas development activities within the NWA and includes the physical works and the activities associated with the construction, operation, decommissioning, abandonment and reclamation of the shallow gas wells, pipelines, and supporting infrastructure.
EnCana Corporation has also applied pursuant to section 2.020 of the Oil and Gas Conservation Regulations for licenses to drill three wells at surface locations in the NWA. The purpose of the proposed wells would be to obtain gas production from the Milk River formation, Medicine Hat sands, and Second White Speckled shale.
The Joint Review Panel Report
The Panel was established by the Federal Minister of Environment and the Alberta Energy Utilities Board, to consider the proposal by EnCana Corporation to drill 1275 shallow gas wells in the NWA. The process included public hearings held in Calgary and Medicine Hat in October 2008. The report, released on January 27, 2009 includes the Panel’s conclusions and recommendations, pursuant to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, and the Panel’s decisions, pursuant to the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board Act and the Energy Resources Conservation Act on Application No. 1435831 to drill three wells in the NWA.
The Panel denied approval for the three wells and concluded that EnCana’s proposal to drill 1,275 natural gas wells and construct associated infrastructure in the NWA would result in significant adverse effects on certain species at risk and interfere with the conservation of wildlife. However, the Panel determined that the project was “valid” and that there were no alternatives to the project, allowing for future proposals to be considered. The report sets out three requirements that would have to be met for the project to go forward without interfering with the conservation of wildlife:
The report also contains 27 recommendations, some independent of the project, but most in case the project were to proceed.
The report confirms the authority of the Base Commander to authorize activities in the NWA under the Wildlife Area Regulations of the Canada Wildlife Act. It also states that, if the project were to go ahead, the Base Commander has the authority to review every single well to determine whether it would be consistent with the overall permit.
The Panel report states that DND, as the responsible authority (because the NWA is in a CFB), will lead the development of a government response to this report and seek approval of the response from the governor in council (i.e., the federal cabinet). Environment Canada staff seem to think that Prentice has the final word, though. There is no set timeline for this.
The report is available at:
Preliminary analysis of the JRP report
In the short term at least, it is positive that the Panel's report recognized the importance of the NWA and concluded that the project should not be approved at this time. The 3 requirements that would have to be met for the project to go forward without causing significant impact on the conservation of wildlife do set a high bar for EnCana. However, the impacts on the NWA would ultimately depend on how strictly the requirements and other laws are implemented and enforced. For example, if the final critical habitat for Ord's Kangaroo Rat and Sprague's Pipit is scaled back considerably from the CH that has been “preliminarily assessed”, and if EnCana obtains permits under SARA to destroy critical habitat, then the requirements will have done little to protect the integrity of Suffield NWA. While the requirements and additional conditions recommended by the Panel might work in a perfect world, in the real world there is no guarantee that those conditions would in fact protect the integrity of the Suffield NWA
Although the better decision would’ve been to recommend against any further development in the NWA, overall the Panel did a good job and presented thoughtful recommendations. Eleven of the Panel’s 27 recommendations are designed to address major deficiencies in environmental management within the NWA and CFB Suffield overall. Immediate action should be taken on some of the Panel’s recommendations, including:
These measures, which will take considerable time and resources to accomplish, are required to ensure ongoing activities on CFB Suffield are being managed in a manner that is environmentally sustainable as mandated by federal government policy and are in compliance with the Species at Risk Act.
The sixteen other recommendations of the Panel are prefaced by “should the project proceed”. They demonstrate the considerable challenges and uncertainties involved in mitigating the risk of significant adverse effects from EnCana’s proposed project as well as from current activities on sensitive soils, native grassland, wetlands, ungulate winter range, five species of snakes and fifteen species at risk. Taking the risk implied within these recommendations may be appropriate on CFB Suffield’s Military Training Area, but it is not appropriate within a national wildlife area.
Jurisdiction over the Wildlife Area Regulations permit was a very contentious issue at the hearings. The recognition by the Panel that the Base Commander has this authority, including as it pertains to individual wells, is a very good outcome. The Base seems to be committed to the conservation of the NWA, while staying short of opposing the project altogether.
The Panel found that EnCana’s project would likely result in significant adverse effects on species at risk and consequently interfere with the conservation of wildlife. Avoiding such interference is a requirement of the Wildlife Area Regulations. Therefore, federal permits to proceed with additional drilling in the NWA under the Wildlife Area Regulations or the Species at Risk Act should be denied. It would also be inappropriate to issue such permits at this time given that the recovery strategies for certain species at risk in the area remain to be developed although the SARA deadlines have passed.