Pictured above: Architectural rendering of Calgary’s skyline featuring “The Bow,” Encana’s new 58 story office tower, the largest west of Toronto.
Calgary alternative newsweekly Fast Forward has an interesting feature in its current issue profiling the EnCana Corporation, the Alberta company formed in 2002 with the merger of PanCanadian Energy and Alberta Energy Company that today is one of the largest oil and gas conglomerates in the world with $23 billion in revenue last year.
The article purports to tell the “full story of Canada’s greatest business success, and the angry people left in its wake,” namely the “trail of farmers and ranchers who say the company has ruined their land, made them sick and killed their livestock.” One such hair-raising tale involves Rosebud, AB resident Jessica Ernst:
In 2005, Ernst noticed something was happening to the water from her well. At first, her dogs wouldn’t drink it. Then, she saw it was fizzing as if it was carbonated. In December, she couldn’t turn her taps off: there was so much gas in her water, it raised the pressure and forced its way through her pipes.
She also discovered she could light it on fire. When lit, a huge blue flame burns on the surface of the water, before turning orange and escaping upward like a flare. “It still scares me,” she says. “You never know what the water is going to do.”
Tests on her water revealed high levels of methane, ethane and several other fossil fuels. It also showed signs of heavy hydrocarbons, like the ones used in drilling fluids. Three other area wells have shown high levels of gas. At least two studies have shown that, when a well is fraced, the pressure can break through the bedrock and leak natural gas into the groundwater. Drilling fluids can also contain trace amounts of chemicals, ranging from diesel to ammonium.
But it would be wrong to simply portray EnCana as an insensitive company recklessly despoiling the land as it relentlessly exploits the valuable natural resources that lay beneath the surface of the western prairie. Far from it, according to its own corporate information and the glowing Wikipedia entry which states that:
EnCana has received numerous awards for its environmental initiatives and is recognized on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. In 2008 alone, EnCana has set aside $50 million CDN to be spent on new technologies that will increase energy efficiency. Another program, EnCana’s Environmental Innovation Fund, “supports technologies that reduce air emissions, increase energy efficiency, improve water conservation, enhance waste management, and develop new renewable energy.” $23 million from this fund has already been dedicated to 15 Canadian companies.
Additionally, as noted in the article, EnCana has “created jobs, brought investment and poured money into rural communities across the Canadian Prairies” — lots of money.
EnCana has made its mark everywhere it operates. This year, it plans to donate $35 million to charities in communities from northern B.C. to Texas. Everything from the 4-H Club — the iconic prairie club that teaches kids farming skills — to community rodeos have benefited from the company’s philanthropy. In Calgary, EnCana is building a billion-dollar skyscraper whose design has garnered praise from architecture critics…
It’s this dichotomy of interests on the part of the various stakeholders involved and the tensions that almost always seem to arise — the obvious benefits and short-term gains that natural resource exploitation bring on the one hand and the practically unavoidable, long-term costs and frequently harmful ecological impacts on the other — that make the EnCana story a particularly compelling symbol of the challenges faced by oil and gas producers in a world that’s grown more acutely sensitive (some might say too much so) over the years to safeguarding the environment for future generations.