For the ninth time since 2007, EnCana appeared in a Medicine Hat court to dispute four charges against the company filed under the Federal Wildlife Act's Wildlife Area Regulations. The charges stem from the installation of a small-diametre pipeline without a permit by an EnCana contractor in 2005. The pipeline, intended to collect gas from a nearby plant, extends approximately 300 meters into the Canadian Forces Base Suffield National Wildlife Area, located northeast of Medicine Hat.
The NWA makes up roughly 460 square kilometres of the 2,690 square kilometres that encompass CFB Suffield and is home to a vast array of species of plants, insects, birds and animals-- including 14 species listed as at risk in Canada. Since 1971, the Canadian Military classified the area comprising the NWA as "out of bounds" for all military training and defence research purposes in recognition of the unique ecological features of the area and the need for preservation. In 1992 the Department of National Defence and Environment Canada signed a memorandum of understanding to establish the land as a National Wildlife Area. In 2003 the area was officially protected under the Canadian Wildlife Act.
EnCana has been involved in gas and oil exploration in CFB Suffield since the 1970s. Since then, EnCana drilled an estimated 9,400 wells and proposed to drill an additional 1,275 wells over three years, for which regulatory hearings began Monday.
The charges related to the pipeline are an example of how EnCana operates, argued Alberta Wilderness Association vice-president Cliff Wallis. Wallis acknowledged that if considered an isolated incident, the pipeline installation is relatively minor. The larger issue is how EnCana continues to conduct operations in and around protected lands.
"The real purpose of that permit is so that first of all, there's proper planning," said Canadian Wildlife Services former employee Gary Trottier.
Protection of the NWA under the Canadian Wildlife Act states even routine maintenance of existing oil and gas infrastructure in the NWA would require a permit.
"Up until this summer there was continual push back and there was no resolution of permits for these [maintenance] types of activities . . . EnCana has just been going in there and doing things," said Trottier.
The pipeline in question was a new development related to a drilling program outside the NWA and was not related to maintenance work. Trottier pointed out that new developments require stricter review before a permit is issued.
According to Wallis, this incident "is the straw that broke the camel's back" and the government needs to get the standard to which companies like EnCana accountable.
"When [the pipeline] was being built by the contractors, they were trying to do the right thing for the environment and avoid a wetland area that was on the initial route," EnCana spokesperson Rhonda DelFrari explained. "By doing that they mistakenly, unknowingly really, went over a small portion of the border in the NWA."
DelFrari declined to comment on the guidelines EnCana contractors follow while the matter is in courts.