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MD council supports group fighting wells near Minnie Lake

The Minnie Lake Conservation Society is continuing to battle a proposed network of heavy oil wells and batteries around the lake, and last week its efforts experienced a formal boost from MD of Bonnyville council. At the urging of Ward 3 Coun.
Canadian Natural Resources Limited wants to drill 15 oil wells in the Minnie Lake area, much to the dismay of members of the Minnie Lake Conservation Society. The
Canadian Natural Resources Limited wants to drill 15 oil wells in the Minnie Lake area, much to the dismay of members of the Minnie Lake Conservation Society. The society’s concerns range from the effects of the proposed development on the area’s watershed to issue such as noise and traffic, and how they will affect lake users.

The Minnie Lake Conservation Society is continuing to battle a proposed network of heavy oil wells and batteries around the lake, and last week its efforts experienced a formal boost from MD of Bonnyville council.

At the urging of Ward 3 Coun. Mike Krywiak, council passed a motion at its June 23 meeting indicating it supports the concerns of those opposed to CNRL's plans. The motion was to be communicated to the Energy Resources Conservation Board — the approving authority for the wells and related facilities — in a letter from the MD.

Minnie Lake is on the north side of Highway 660, roughly four kilometres northeast of Glendon, and sits in Krywiak's ward. Land on the south end of the lake is home to an MD campground, some private cabins, a public boat launch and adjoining recreation area.

The ERCB is currently considering applications from Canadian Natural Resources Limited that would allow the company to tap bitumen under land close to the lake and even under the lake itself with directionally drilled wells.

“We received 16 applications from CNRL to drill 15 wells from eight well pad locations and construct eight bitumen batteries,” confirmed ERCB spokesman Bob Curran.

“The applications were submitted on Nov. 11, 2009 and then two of them were replaced by new applications in May, when they relocated one of the (proposed) wells and one of the facilities,” he said. “They're all under review.”

Curran said the CNRL filed the applications as a group of applications rather than individual ones.

The move by the MD to pass a motion in support of the society's concerns comes roughly two and a half years since CNRL started moving on the applications at the start of 2008.

The project was opposed then by people who use the lake area. Their concerns include issues such as traffic and noise, but the society's opposition has been centring on water issues, and fears that drilling in the area could contaminate the groundwater aquifers around the lake, as well as the lake itself, which is connected to ground water sources and has declined in depth by as much as 14 feet, according to some people opposed to drilling around the lake.

Unlike relatively shallow Moose Lake, Minnie Lake, though smaller (it's roughly two square kilometres in size) is considerably deeper, making it a better source of water. It's Glendon's former main water source, though it now serves only as a backup.

CNRL has been dealing with the society's concerns since they were raised in 2008, but recently changed its approach, according to the society, which points to an April 21 e-mail from the company as an item of great concern.

The April 21 e-mail, from Rick Palmer, a regulatory co-ordinator for CNRL, spells out the company's position after more than two years of dialogue with the society.

“A substantial effort has been made to date to communicate pertinent information, including an independent expert and reviews by the ERCB and AENV (Alberta Environment). Canadian Natural meets or exceeds all the requirements for the proposed wells and facilities and it is extremely unlikely that they will have any impact or affect on Minnie Lake,” the e-mail says.

“Therefore we wish to advise that we do not believe it will be possible to reach a reasonable understanding with MLCS and will be awaiting the ERCB's decision on our applications.”

Just when that decision will come is uncertain, Curran said.

In light of the company's declaration in the e-mail, the society has moved more into the political arena. While its members hadn't had a formal meeting with Bonnyville-Cold Lake MLA Genia Leskiw as of last week, some did sit down earlier this spring to register their concerns with Lac La Biche-St. Paul MLA Ray Danyluk, Alberta's minister of infrastructure.

Minnie Lake is in Leskiw's constituency, but some MLCS members live in Lac La Biche-St. Paul.

The society has also been communicating with its members, laying out its concerns in a May newsletter that also featured a shot of a burning offshore drilling rig and a photo caption reading: “Though obviously very different in many ways that our Minnie Lake scenario, the BP disaster is a terrible and devastating reminder of the damage that can occur when adequate safeguards are not in place.”

The newsletter calls for more political involvement for those opposed to CNRL's applications.

“We have found throughout our best efforts at negotiations that the ERCB regulations now in place are not adequate for the special case of drilling so many wells so close to Minnie Lake, and through the aquifers that so many people rely on for their water,” the newsletter reads.

The MLCS objects to the number of wells proposed, drilling for anything directly underneath the lake, and using water from within 1.6 kilometres of the lake to help with drilling or production.

If the proposed wells and batteries are approved, the society also wants well casings cemented from the surface of drill sites all the way down to 130 metres below the ground to reduce the risk of groundwater contamination in the area. As well it wants water well testing done within 1.6 kilometres of drilling sites before and after the proposed wells are drilled. It's also calling for gas collection at well sites (the ERCB says the wells aren't expected to have any hydrogen sulphide gas content) construction only between Oct. 1 and May 1, and that any concessions already agreed to by CNRL in earlier negotiations with the society be part of any permit granted by the ERCB.

“We probably can't oppose that it happen at all, but we can try to get the best precautions in place that we possibly can,” said MLCS spokesperson Coralee Beaulieu.

While the fight against drilling around Minnie Lake may preserve the area for recreational use, Beaulieu said the issues are far more significant that simply concerns about traffic, noise and odours.

“Our concerns aren't just with protection of the recreation value of the lake,” she said. “We have a really big concern about subsurface water as well.”

Krywiak shares those concerns, though the councillor is hesitant to suggest precisely what setbacks should be from Alberta lakes when it comes to drilling activity.

“It would be nice if the government would give the companies setbacks,” he said.

He does, however, contend that drilling under lakes shouldn't occur.

As councillor for the area, Krywiak said his main role in the case was to the support the society and landowners concerned about the development.

That line of thinking was echoed somewhat by Reeve Ed Rondeau when council discussed the issue last week.

“We have to support our ratepayers,” Rondeau said.

While the resolution of support for those with concerns about the proposal passed unanimously, it did so after Coun. Barry Kalinski noted just who has jurisdiction to rule on CNRL's applications — the ERCB.

“They're going to stop it or they're not going to stop it. They don't need our two cents,” Kalinski said.

Drilling near or under lakes isn't uncommon in Alberta, according to Curran, who noted the directional drilling need to tap areas under lakes is very common.

“Directional drilling occurs all the time in Alberta. Thousands of wells are drilled every year in Alberta using directional drilling. It's a proven technology,” Curran said.

A spokesman in CNRL's Bonnyville office said Monday that Palmer's April 21 e-mail remains the company's position on the issue.