It was November 29th, 2013 when his teenaged grandsons asked why they were going to sell the farm. Dad turned to look out the living room window for a few moments then told them, "I don't like my neighbors much anymore".
Back in 2002, Encana Corporation took over the six gas wells on our farm and moved into the neighborhood. For anyone who has experienced the hell of living beside a rude, disrespectful AND deceitful neighbor there does come the time when you wish you could be somewhere else; anywhere else.
Imagine you have lived in the same home for all of your life, the same place you played and worked from the time you were a kid. You raised your family here and planned to spend your retirement years enjoying the benefits from all of your hard earned successes. In your mind, this is heaven, the best place in the entire world.
Now imagine you have acquired – and not by choice! - a tenant in your back yard and over a twenty year period this tenant has increasingly demanded more and more of your property and your time, and has often cost you out of pocket expenses. You've watched over the years how the laws were changed to give this tenant more legal rights and privileges to your property than you do. You have sat at your own kitchen table while your tenant tells you how things are going work, and if you don't like it, tough.
Then you discover that this tenant has caused irreparable damages to your property and your polite requests to fix these problems are shrugged off by making promises they have no intention to keep or you’re told to prove it was their fault first? So you suck it up and try to do your best to keep peace with this tenant that you will be stuck with for many years to come.
I don't have to imagine any of this because I've been a captive bystander all my life. I have first-hand documented accounts on how my parents and our land, our water and the air we breathe have been grossly mistreated by the oil and gas industry in general and by EnCana representatives in particular.
When I began to take better notice to this aspect of our farming business I started questioning the impact that the existing six wells were already having on our land. Things with EnCana representatives were tolerable at best, that is until we caught them lying to us, AND about us in 2006. It could be said that we have been locking horns with a bunch of bullies ever since.
I don't really know how to tell this story. There are so many over lapping layers because there is a thin grey line between one's professional life and one's private life when you are a farm family. Farming with my parents was never a job; it was just simply my life. When the three of us were faced with a conundrum in our farming business it naturally prioritized our private lives.
Our tenant's prolonged bad neighbor attitude and inconsiderate, sometimes illegal activities simply took the fun out of everything we cherished. More than that, the adverse effects we experienced by having to constantly deal with these people over such an extended period of time significantly impacted our physical and mental health.
This is not the kind of stuff you can put a price on, or walk away from unscathed. Whether real or imagined, our health problems were at the point where something had to give or face the consequences of early stress related deaths. More than once we asked each other what should we do when we fear that living in our home is no longer safe? We had all pondered this topic at length. It had got to the point where it seemed that was the only thing we talked about during our morning coffees. And those discussions followed in our minds for the rest of the day. That's how worrying works... it just sticks to you and hides in the background of everything you do, it never goes away.
So in the fall of 2013, Mom and Dad made the decision to put the farm up for sale and move. It wasn't an easy choice to make but in reality it was the only choice left.
Over the years Dad had collected a filing cabinet full of lease agreements, letters and notification packages but he had rarely bothered with them too much. I think mostly because he dreaded having to deal with these pushy, arrogant people. His overall experiences with the oil/gas brotherhood rarely resulted in a positive outcome for him or for the farm.
Then one spring afternoon in 2005, while visiting with the neighbor, Dad was told that all he has to do was write a simple letter in response to their form-letter offer for a "review of the annual compensation" and, as it happened to the neighbor, EnCana would automatically jack up the pittance for their yearly lease by simply adding a little more to the currently due cheque!
So when we received EnCana's rental notice for well 3 (W3) we penned our first letter to EnCana on June 3, 2005.
Just like the neighbour told Dad, EnCana responded by adding an extra $450.00 to the next rental cheque. No negotiations, no fuss no muss!
So when we later received EnCana's rental notice for well 2 (W2) we did the same as we had done for W3. Next thing we knew, EnCana automatically gifted to W2's annual cheque an extra $460.00. The ten dollar difference caught our attention and we wondered aloud why would one well site would generate this no hassle, $10.00 discrepancy over another well. The closest we ever got to an explanation for this willy-nilly extra $10.00 was as one landman put it, he “likes using round figures”. What an generous way to not negotiate.
We waited on EnCana for years to stop dragging their heels with this one simple industry regulated rent review process until it became evident that we were to be made an example of for daring to refuse their low ball monetary offers. They didn't like it much either when we started asking simple, point blank questions about their long term, future developmental plans for the unfettered use of our land. EnCana had this one simple obligation to fulfill, yet in the end, they and the regulatory process failed us miserably. Just one small example to support my claim that common sense concepts like honesty, honor, due diligence, and the meaning of a hand shake was lost on this company's "Courtesy Matters" staff. My opinion of governments coddling the “economy versus environment” argument does not bode well with me either.
Despite many, many attempts to resolve some very serious matters in a cooperative, professional and private fashion we reached the conclusion that the only way to get this bully's attention was to shame someone into providing us with some appropriate responses. So we penned a few more letters and sent them out via snail mail and email. I would also hand out our contact info at the countless number of public meetings Dad and I attended, with the intent to share our concerns with anyone who would listen. Quite a few of our early morning coffee chats ended with Dad pointlessly asking, “am I the only one to think this way?”
Airing our laundry in public is not my family's way to do business but Dad was tired of the relentless badgering of one industry representative after another interfering in our professional and private lives any time they decided to. Add that to the huge list of broken promises, always waiting for the next shoe to drop and living in a constant state of battle readiness was agonizing. What nobody tells you when the landman comes a calling is, there's a belly full of adverse effects that have no end dates. One way or another, you're screwed. Your soil, your water, the air you breathe, and your way of life is severely put in jeopardy.
We watched sympathetically to how EnCana, the regulator and government officials mistreated our friends and neighbours brave enough to go public with horror stories about their own land and water contamination issues. Asked why they made the decision to make their otherwise private business dealings public, the answers are the same. Like my family they discovered unusual yet serious land or water well problems implicating a possible link to nearby oil and gas development. After investing an exorbitant effort into research and investigation we too felt we were left holding the bag after following the industry's propaganda trail that says if you jump through the appropriate hoops and over the required time limited hurdles someone would care enough to act with a minimum measure of prudence and accountability.
The assault on my family's good nature by dishonest industry reps and a lack of the necessary industry related education on our part was a shitty helpless feeling. The government bureaucrats were no help to us either for we quickly learned they were all on side with the oil and gas boys; this was evident by the shit storm of late night, back room politicking that dismantled the few property rights that we did have. Imagine if in order to work in the energy sector a person had to recognize the difference between a canola field and a mustard field in bloom while travelling at highway speed? My dad liked those kinds of pop quizzes if he sensed I was getting too comfortable in the passenger seat on many runs for parts or supplies. My point is; we didn't know much about the oil and gas industry because we didn't know we had to. Now we do, a little, and it's not the pretty picture that industry paints.
The absurdities don't end there. As the 'LANDOWNER' we were the only individuals and the only business entity in the equation that to this day, is not allowed, by law, to opt out of the land grab process. And call us greedy farmers if we expect to see a benefit or a small profit for having to put up with the grief from undesirable tenants. I like to use the term 'forced volunteerism' to describe this scenario.
In terms of the emotional sufferings to my family there is no compensation worthy because I suppose we could have turned a blind eye and settled for the shiny beads and firewater offered. But in terms of our business' bottom line we could calculate the real increasing deficit on our books in terms of how much real time and real associated expenses it was costing us in order to fully participate in this forced negotiation process. The insult to the injury, the last straw, call it whatever, is when we realized just how much our tenant was costing our business.
The morning of January 17, 2008, at our kitchen table, three EnCana landmen laughed in my dad's face over the invoices for our time that we presented to them for payment. Like most EnCana reps that we had to deal with they made the mistake in thinking we were just some dumb farmers but my dad is a very sharp businessman and our time had a value. We initiated our first legal challenge because EnCana refused to pay their bills as promised with handshakes and in writing. Little good that did in the end but those invoices for our time still provide a truthful account of the work we were tasked with.
Then on October 23, 2009 our worst fears were realized and long story short, a fourth statement of claim was filed in September 2011 in regard to a water contamination situation we discovered on our land by chance. We have very solid reasons to believe this 'water anomaly' first appeared in 2007 which is a tad eerie in that many of the letters and articles that we wrote in 2006 expressed huge concerns over just the things we were beginning to see with our own eyes on our own land.
I would be remiss if I didn't point out that our frustrations extended to the horrid experiences we had dealing with the industry regulators and government appointed 'environment protection officers'. As difficult as it had been to hold EnCana reps to their word and the law, we discovered it was much the same battle to get elected individuals or bureaucrats responsible for upholding legislated mandates and oaths of office to demonstrate their due diligence.
The following is my attempt to tell my family's story so my grandsons will one day know that we did all that we could do to preserve their opportunity to become the seventh generation to farm our family land. Secondly, I wish for others facing the same BS we did, that they may learn from our successes and failures. Consider this my scrapbook if you will; a collage of documents, reports, letters, emails & photographs that illustrate how asking a few simple questions led to a long road of unnecessary tricks and ploys meant to wear down our time, our money but most importantly, our health. And for what? So our phony, self-proclaimed but really-not-so-good neighbor and their greedy political buddies could fatten their wallets at the expense of families like mine and an environment we all need? Consider this next time you reach for that loaf of bread, a jug of milk or a carton of eggs... the environment that grows your food has been, and continues to be, knowingly contaminated by the petroleum industry and the governments are knowingly facilitating and promoting it.
My motive for sharing this story is simple. To stand up for what is right because my due diligence is clear.
"Everywhere we look at present we see something new trying to be born.
A pregnant, swollen world is writhing in labor, and everywhere
untrained quacks are officiating as obstetricians.
These quacks say that the only way the new can be born is by a caesarean operation.
They lust to rip the belly of the world open."
- from Reflections on the Human Condition by Eric Hoffer (1902-1983)