ACCORDING TO THE GREEN SCRIPTURES you might be led to believe Alberta’s wilderness and wild places have been irrevocably trashed.
You know the stories:
Resource extraction industries have despoiled Mother Nature.
And only enlightened ones on the receiving end of The Economy of Attention can right a century of wrong-doing by evil-doers on the land. You — oh, city folk — can make peace with the earth by giving your proxy and your money (lots of the green folding stuff, as it turns out) to fill-in-the-blank ‘charitable’ cause.
I’m a lawyer by training, and lately find myself inside the journalism tent. The two disciplines converge on this fact: If you really want to know what’s going on ‘out there’ stop flying a desk or the phone and go to where where is.
“The best way to discover culture is in the places where mainline airlines don’t fly, main highways don’t reach and branch plants don’t locate.” — Wallace Stegner, an American writer who spent his childhood in Canada’s Cypress Hills
Travelling with friends, this past July, we decided to find the Lodgepole blowout site. And if you cannot recall where & what I’m going on about, you’re not alone. But — trust me — the 1982 sour gas blow-out was a monster, on par with Atlantic #3 in the Leduc field in 1948.
I’m curious by nature. And I wanted to see how the ravaged well-sites fared over the decades. My colleague Don Hill assured me the remains of Atlantic #3 was nothing to look at (he was ‘on location’ for a documentary he made in the early 1990s). Lodgepole wasn’t yet history enough for the television show. “I’d go now,” he said.
And we did (sans Don who had grandpa business to attend to).
One of our fellow travellers, Dr. Brian Bietz, happened to be the biologist hired by the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) thirty-eight years ago to understand the Lodgepole blowout’s impacts on the nearby Pembina River.
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
On our 3-day trek through David Thompson country, Brian regaled us with stories of regulatory hearings past. We poked around the hamlet of Ferrier where Brian had presided over a 2001 decision by the ERCB to deny Shell Canada the right to drill a sour gas well. Turning down a Shell application wasn’t routine but what was even more unusual was having a National Film Board crew at the hearing to film a documentary called Worst Case Scenario (narrated by David Suzuki). You might already guess where the movie was going…
Navigating the terrain in the vicinity of the Lodgepole well blowout was tricky. Where the pavement ends, gravel and dirt roads are chock-a-block with oil & gas processing facilities, gathering pipelines, several active wells and several more being drilled.
Gigantic trucks hauling propane, water, gravel and timber thundered by us as we absorbed, in amazement, the magnitude of the industry happening along these back roads.
Ultimately, we arrived at the Lodgepole well-site and found not a hint of its notorious environmental history. The vegetation had grown back, the wetlands nearby undisturbed, there wasn’t even a marker or small monument to mark the place. It’s like it never happened.
MARKING OUR DEFINING MOMENTS
Monuments get toppled but it was disquieting to find nothing to commemorate the 1982 wild well at Lodgepole’s ground zero. The only tangible legacy is the name of the advocacy group, the Pembina Institute, spawned by the disaster along the Pembina River.
Earlier in our journey, we stopped at the Caroline gas plant—one of Shell’s crown jewels. Last October, Shell sold all of its Foothills sour gas assets to new operators who believe Alberta will export liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Europe & Asia. THAT transition was another defining moment for Albertans. And as the signage on the plant indicates, there isn’t much to mark the spot, just a scrubbing of SHELL’s name & logo.
WE’RE NOT TOURISTS
The sublime aesthetics of the wilderness landscapes along the David Thompson Highway grab our attention. Fervent environmentalists prefer tourists enjoy this majesty through the windshields of their vehicles. But we’re not tourists.
And neither are we scourges on the land. Get that out of your head, right now. It’s propaganda. And it evangelizes a world without humanity in it. As Don reminded me—a story he was told by an Elder decades ago—special places in The West “are lonely for human company.”
WHAT ELSE ARE WE MISSING?
Brian was an amazing guide; as well, we had a copy of Stegner’s 1988 book alongside, The American West as Living Space, where Stegner points out what else we need to notice about our western terrain.
THE WEST IS DEFINED BY DRY LAND—water scarcity, man-made dams, subsidized irrigation-systems. Aridity IS what makes Alberta’s habitat fragile. (Southern Alberta in the 1920s proved that point, too well; check out David Jones’ superb book, Empire of Dust, for the gritty details). And it’s complicated: Water ownership, water rights & water flows aren’t easy to follow.
Along the way, we mapped waterways crossed—rivers, creeks, wetlands—and crossed large dams engineered to control those flows. And we pondered big questions, like:
- British Columbia’s Site C dam is enormous; what does this mean for Alberta when we don’t have a water-sharing agreement between our 2 provinces?
- The American West is getting drier & drier; what happens when our southern neighbours desperately require our fresh water?
SPACE (NOT PLACE) IS THE ALGEBRA OF OUR TERRITORY — it’s a product of aridity, and this wide-open space suggests unrestricted freedom, unlimited opportunity and the continued need for self-reliance. And as we already flagged, Stegner encourages us urbanites to get out of the cities and into this SPACE if we want to understand the culture of our place. The seedbeds of emergent culture are found in places that have had to adapt, places like Lodgepole, Alberta.
“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”―