(February 17, 2020) To most prairie grain farmers, the land dispute between a foreign owned fracked-gas company and a First Nation defending their unceded land in British Columbia is remote and may even seem irrelevant.

Via Rail’s suspension of passenger rail service across Canada inconveniencing thousands of commuters in the east was a ridiculous over-reaction to some symbolic blockades – while it likely had most people in the west asking “what passenger rail service?”

As of this writing CN rail has laid off a grand total of ten workers in the Maritimes.  So, in spite of some hyperbole by Alberta’s Premier Kenney, the sky is not falling and most farmers will continue paying their bills.

However, there is a large group of Alberta farmers and ranchers to whom the Wet’suwe’ten’s plight is very relevant.  With derelict oil and gas facilities littering their land and destroying its value for both farming and re-sale they have been the victims of oil and gas company impunity for decades and may have more sympathy for the Wet’suwe’ten protecting their land than their excitable Premier.

Impunity defined as “exemption or freedom from punishment, harm, or loss” 

To understand the impunity of the oil and gas sector it helps to look at Alberta’s history.  In 1947 the Government of Alberta, desperate for more oil and gas development, removed the rights of farmers and ranchers to just say no to any oil company that wanted to drill on their land or run a pipeline through it.

Leduc Blowout

Leduc Blowout – D. Breen, The Conservation Board.

The Government fell for the oil companies’ self-serving argument that they could only drill straight down into oil and gas formations miles below the surface and pipelines could only run in straight lines.  In fact, when the Imperial Leduc No. 1 well blew out in 1947, they successfully drilled two directional wells from a mile or more away to intercept the out of control bore hole and stop the flow.  So, there was never any technical reason for stripping farmers and ranchers of their right and obligation to protect their land.

The companies simply wanted the power to take surface land from farmers and ranches with no fuss and at little cost.  Even then the Alberta government was riddled with conflict of interest, and gave into them.  Oil and gas could operate with impunity.

Understanding the System

The way this impunity has worked in Alberta is the company usually makes an insultingly low offer of compensation for access to a location it sees as convenient with the hope the farmer or rancher will respond “that’s not enough.”  Under Alberta law, when the farmer or rancher utters words to that effect, the company simply goes to the industry friendly Alberta Surface Rights Board. The Board promptly issues a right of entry order and compensation to the farmer largely based on the agricultural productivity of the land, not its value to the oil company.  Then the oil and gas company tears the place up.  As a result, Alberta’s regulatory system has “lost the consent of the governed” to quote a retired Alberta Judge who investigated the situation.

Having been connected with two successful court cases against Alberta’s energy regulators, I can say with some confidence the Court system has also been rendered less than useful.  This is because in those cases the Government of Alberta changed the laws and regulations with the Responsible Energy Act to negate legal gains made by landowners.

Until oil and gas prices crashed in 2014, it was often not a bad bargain for landowners in lower productivity areas who had no choice in the matter anyway.  Those compensation payments financed a lot of new pickups and even the occasional tractor across Alberta.  But now the chickens have come home to roost.  Bankrupt oil and gas firms washed their hands of clean up costs, then stopped paying landowners and their municipal taxes.

About a year ago, a bureaucrat with the Alberta Energy Regulator estimated the cost of cleaning up the derelict junk on Alberta land at $260 billion.  This is more than the Alberta government has saved in oil and gas royalties over the past 46 years and much more than the mere $196 million some estimate the Alberta government holds in security.  Maybe that explains why Alberta’s Premier Kenney is asking Ottawa to fund the clean up.  The AER bureaucrat was fired.

In the short term the protests supporting the Wet’suwe’ten are unlikely to seriously affect export grain shipments but it may provide the grain companies with a ready excuse to pay farmers less.   However, many Alberta farmers and ranchers should have a great deal of sympathy for First Nations facing the impunity of the oil and gas sector enabled by Canada’s industry-captured regulatory system.

The National Farmers Union is to be commended for supporting the defense of renewable land and water against this non-renewable sun-set industry.  Here is a link to the NFU news release and here is a link to a background article from a western Canadian historian.



  1. Joanne Butler

    Thank you for this concise and clear summary of the situation. It is most helpful.

  2. Neil Peacock

    excellent article

  3. Stewart Wells

    Wonderful piece.