Living in the Middle of a Gas Field

By Deborah Carr

While researching fracking in northern British Columbia, the title of Vicky Simlik’s letter in the Dawson Creek Mirror appeared in my Google search results and caught my eye: ’Living in the Middle of a Gas Field’.

It’s rare to find first-hand fracking experiences appearing in the media (most people don’t want to voice their experiences for fear of reprisal; others signe non-disclosure agreements in order to receive compensation for damages), so after reading the letter, I emailed her and asked what prompted it.  “I wrote my short opinion piece about living in a gas field after I had read yet another article in our paper stating that we need to support the oil and gas and pipeline industry,” she wrote back.

She gave me permission to repost her letter here:

“I live in the agricultural community of Farmington BC. I recently read a question posted online; where are the ‘fracking voices’ from NEBC [North-east BC]? Where is the social media presence or twitter page?’

I considered the question.

Trying to live in the middle of a gas field, one may not have the luxury of time, energy and clear thought to post on social media about the experience here.

Witnessing the rapid pace of industrial shale gas development and the excessive infrastructure that comes with it can be shocking and overwhelming in a community.

Life in a rural area often involves calving, lambing, seeding, working, childcare and life in general. When shale gas moves in it dominates!  People are inundated with companies, contractors, phone calls, surveyors, the Oil & Gas Commission, consultation, notifications, surface rights board hearings and oil & gas appeal tribunals, permits and approvals. The ‘temporary’ drilling operation and everything that goes with it turns your environment into mind bending noise, vibration, dust and industrial equipment all working at the same time.

The assault continues with fracking of wells, completions of wells, pipelines, flow lines, gas lines, water lines, stadium lighting, surveying and resurveying, amendments, earthquakes, flares and more flares, notices, land agent, new land agent, telephone calls, letters, emails, another land agent. Repeat.

The BC government offers companies road credits, infrastructure credits and encourages drilling in spring, summer, winter & fall.  There’s always more to come.

I sent a short video to a friend who wanted to know what it’s like to ‘live by fracking’.   The video I sent to her was not of fracking but of a well site being prepared.  I warned her to “turn down the volume on the video before you hit play or the noise might blast you out of your chair.”

After a landowner’s exhaustive attempts to address concerns or to try and resolve the things that can never be resolved, your land may be expropriated anyway.

Our land is changing and an area that used to be the driest spot in our hayfield is turning into a bog. This short video shows surface deformation in a gas field from petroleum extraction and it’s worth a look: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NPNBlaU-5iI

When this industry moves into a community there is no opting out or ‘no thank you we don’t want any.’ We all share the bad air, disruptions, destruction, sleep deprivation and disturbed pets & livestock.

My old dog spent the last year of his life frequently struggling to his feet because of the induced earthquakes and floor vibrations. It’s hell!

I’m not thriving because of BC’s shale oil & gas industry. In my experience, it’s been more like a slow kill.”

Idyllic Farmland to Industrial Frack Zone

After the initial contact with Vicky, we began emailing back and forth, and then talked on the phone. She reaffirmed what other landowners have told me…once the industry gets a foothold, there’s no turning back.

Vicky and her horse, Tyne. Tyne was born on the farm, 25 years ago. She heads to the woods to hide when the noise starts up.

She and her husband bought their 80-acre dream hobby farm 25 years ago in a beautiful agricultural area of hay fields and pastureland in northern BC. As a paint and fibre artist, she cherished the quiet rural life. The expansive, open spaces, clean air, and frequent wildlife sightings inspired her work.

Then ten years ago, the oil industry set their sights on the gas and condensate (a byproduct of fracked gas used to dilute the tar-like bitumen for transport) lying below the fields of  Farmington. The first wells were small, vertical, not overly intrusive, and people signed up quietly, happy for the extra leasing income to offset the rigours of farming. No one paid much attention. Then a few years later, the development and process began to intensify.

Now Vicky’s home is an 80-acre island in the middle of fracked gas wells, pipelines, flare stacks, compressor stations, processing plants, tank farms and worker camps. Another company is ready to develop to the east, another to the north.

“Even though these are newer processing facilities/gas plants and some are powered by hydro we still see black smoke flares. It’s not a daily event but the cumulative effects from multiple gas plants is disturbing.”

Brian Derfler, a farmer from a neighbouring community, calls it the “land of northern lights.”

Loss of Land, Loss of Control

Vicky is stunned at the scale of the development, and how quickly the industry grew. She calls it an invasion. “It dominates people’s lives,” she says.

The pulsing din of drilling and fracking echo across the flat land, making beef cattle and wildlife edgy. Once, a herd of deer ran into the safety of her yard, where they wandered disoriented. One actually bumped into a building. Another time, a cluster of stressed elk, moose and deer huddled together in her yard. “Under normal circumstances you’d never find all those different animals together.”

There are other problems, too. One local farmer reported ewes had begun aborting and other animals developed tumours.

She says her neighbours woke up too late. “I know one farmer who has 13 pipelines through his land.  He thought one or two might be okay, but then that was enough. But the others were expropriated. They told him, ‘Make a deal or we take it anyway ‘. Once they’re in, then you’re a hostage. It might start with a small well pad of several acres, then they grow to 20 acres. Now they’re clearing pads of 32 acres.”

One local grain farmer, Barry Critcher, has a 39-acre well pad with 56 wells slated for his land. Some estimate that if this continues, 25% of the farmland will be lost to gas and condensate production. (For comparison, the well pads in Penobsquis and Elgin constructed before 2014 are under two acres.)

“The prep of a wellsite is shocking to watch – the rearranging of the landscape you’ve known for decades, the trees gone, bulldozed to the ground.”

She says her land is changing to bog.  “You used to be able to ride across lazy farm fields, but it’s a different place now. They’re taking out so much gas, water, condensate, that the land is moving. It’s destructive. It doesn’t belong where people live.”

Yet, when a company wanted to put a well pad by a small rural school, and a group of activists pushed back? “They did it anyway. The school is now surrounded. Parent don’t want to say much because they or family members are working for the companies. “

But the most debilitating problem—outside of heavy truck traffic and the lights, black smoke, noise and odours allowed by BC’s ‘world class’ regulations and emanating from gas processing plants and well sites–is a steady, low level vibration. When it gets too unbearable, she and her husband excape for a few days for relief and sleep at an apartment they’ve rented in Dawson Creek.

“It’s a low frequency sound…you can feel it…the floor might vibrate for weeks. The ceiling snaps. I can’t think straight. I can’t sleep. I can’t paint. The sleep deprivation is the hardest. You’re in shock, asking yourself am I really in Canada?”

Standing Firm

In Vicky’s community, some neighbours gave up, sold out and moved away. “They were the wise ones,” she says. Others have developed health problems. Most keep a large supply of cough drops on hand for dry throat. One has esophageal cancer.

Many members of their grassroots group have also left. The handful who remain have refused to lease land, but it’s not enough to make a difference “It’s a slow kill,” she says. The prevailing mentality, including local politicians, is to accept the industry messaging about their commitment to regulation.

Vicky says even the RCMP are on the side of industry. If you speak out, “They let you know they’re watching you.”

So far, she and her husband have refused to lease or allow any development on their land, but not for lack of trying by the industry.

“We don’t have a gas pipeline or wellsite on our property, but we were repeatedly asked to the point of harassment. This went on for two or three years. Finally, the land agent working for the company told us we would be taken to mediation/arbitration so they could put a pipeline through and they could just expropriate the land, which they have done to others. We kept saying NO and always will.  So far, we don’t have a pipeline. But, true to form, the company went to our neighbour’s place and put it through their land.”

During WEPAC’s information sessions in March, industry geologists Bruce and Marian Langhaus spoke of how in recent years, the process has gained intensity, and drill crews are now conducting longer horizontal laterals (2km and further from the well pad), which require even greater amounts of fresh water, producing more flow back. More machinery and fuel. More truck traffic. More air pollution. More everything.

At our Sussex information session, a former Dawson Creek resident approached me following the presentation to talk about his own experiences. He affirmed that even though a landowner may try every legal avenue to prevent development on his land, the companies get the final say and their right to develop supersedes any landowner rights. He also pointed out that I’d failed to explain how much the housing rents and cost of living increases in fracking towns, leaving those outside the industry struggling financially, driving a further wedge between those who gain and those who pay the price.

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