LETHBRIDGE: Opponents of a sour gas well in the Castle wilderness area have lost their battle to appeal the government's approval of the project, but they hope to still win the war.
Area resident Mike Judd and about a dozen other neighbours banded together in recent months to oppose a Shell drilling project near their land. They say the well will disrupt core grizzly bear habitat, an that animal that was labelled threatened after the province's energy board gave Shell its stamp of approval.
"Albertans have said over and over again they're very concerned about what's happening to our public lands and our wildlife, and that they want to make sure that it's maintained," says Judd.
At a round of public hearings before the decision this spring, citizens raised concerns not only about how the development could affect grizzly bears, but also how it would affect several species of rare plants in the area. Alberta's Ministry for Sustainable Resource Development says independent energy board members took those factors into consideration when deciding whether or not to give the green light, which they did in March.
The process wasn't enough for Judd's group, so they went to the court system to try and get formal leave to appeal, based on their environmental concerns. In the meantime, they set up a 24-hour watch to block equipment from the drilling site.
"I feel that preserving them and that whole ecosystem is very important," says Judd, who walked out in front of a tree-cutting machine two weeks ago to stop it getting access to the site.
He's not alone in his concerns. Many of Alberta's environment groups have been fighting long and hard to stop other development projects in that area, like the government-approved Castle logging project. The Sierra Club of Canada's Calgary branch is one of them.
"We certainly understand why Mike Judd would go to those extents, because it is a critical wildlife zone, which the province defines as crucial to the maintenance of certain fish and wildlife populations. And in this case, certainly crucial to grizzly bears and elk wintering range," says Dianne Pachal, one of the group's directors. "Grizzly bears are now a threatened species in Alberta, and it's cumulative impacts just like this well and the pending logging which are the reasons why we have so few grizzly bears left."
Shell spokesperson Larry Lalonde says his group is taking pains to lessen their impact on the area by using existing access roads and moving identified rare plant species. His company sent top officials to the site last week to talk to the blockade group. He says they want to take residents' concerns "very seriously," but adds they already have the legal backing they need to proceed. Lalonde adds that with 50 existing wells and 200 kilometres of pipeline already in the area, this new well won't have much of an added impact.
Pachal disagrees. She cited a recent study by Global Forest Watch Canada, which surveyed the existing infrastructure in the Castle, like logging roads and well sites. What they found is that the large amount of such "linear disturbance" is just too high to sustain grizzly bear populations long term. She says the government has already identified the area as one of 82 "special places" for its unique ecosystem, and lawmakers should put some legislative action behind the designation.
"This well is adding another piece without any solution being in place on the ground to overall reduce the cumulative impacts, including the pending logging," she says.
For now, movement opposing the sour gas well has stalled. The Alberta Court of Appeal ruled Friday against Judd's petition to try and overturn the decision. The Court says opponents didn't follow the rules for submitting their objections, nor did they allow the ERCB to inspect the grizzly bear