PORCUPINE HILLS, Alta. — A group of Alberta landowners on a pristine swath of Prairie grassland along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains fear planned seismic drilling in the area will open the door to unwelcome oil and gas activity and permanent environmental damage.
The region, south of Calgary near Claresholm, is home to one of the largest remaining tracts of rough fescue grass, a refuge for many species of wildlife and a critical aquifer for southern Alberta. The upper watersheds of the eastern slopes provide water for the needs of the primarily rural economy downstream.
Word that a seismic company is planning to begin drilling test holes along Crown-owned road allowances in the region was met with immediate dismay.
"The water is the concern and the damage to the grass, and fire," said local rancher Shauna Burton. "I guess the thing is once they're in here it's the start of things to come. They know this is the watershed. It's no secret this is the source of the water. It starts on the eastern slopes and what has the government done to protect it? Nothing.
"It is like opening Pandora's Box because once they're in. They're in."
Burton is worried the drilling could spur future oil and gas activity in the relatively untouched region, including hydraulic fracturing, an extraction method that has attracted a great deal of controversy.
The process, often called " fracking," involves blasting water, sand and chemicals into shale rock formations deep underground in order to unleash oil and natural gas. The industry says it is safe but critics blame it for water contamination.
"If they get out here fracking for coalbed methane ... once the water is polluted what are you going to drink, guys? Water is life," Burton said.
The Alberta Wilderness Association said unfortunately in oil-rich Alberta, energy is king.
"You own the land but obviously you don't own anything underneath and you're in this spectacular landscape," said Nigel Douglas, a conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association.
"There's almost an assumption because it looks the way it does that it's protected in some way but as soon as it comes to any energy company you soon realize that the energy comes first. Anything else comes a distant second."
Douglas said the eastern slopes are important because of their water storage and catchment, but the government continues to allow development.
"Seismic isn't the end in itself. The reason they're doing seismic is in the hopes of finding enough reserves to be developable. It's what comes next," he said.
LandQuest Services Ltd. has reassured residents that care will be taken. President Ron Potts said he has heard similar concerns before.
"The fact is most of those people don't want oil and gas. They think the oil and gas can be done someplace else," Potts said.