Energy Pipelines and Agriculture: How much do we stand to lose/gain?
words: Tom Baumann
Certainly, the energy debate is heating up with Enbridge, Kinder Morgan and others proposing all sorts of new pipelines. And I don’t care which side of the debate about the energy pipelines you sit on—whether oil, bitumen, natural gas or god knows what else. Every single one of us uses energy.
So, if we all use energy from the gas in our tanks to the plastic we use to protect our crops, and we accept that our computers are made from mostly plastic and we heat our houses with relatively clean natural gas, why are we so concerned with new pipelines? We have all heard commercials touting the great clean pipelines, and we read letters to the editors about the earth heating up relentlessly and that we may soon all die anyway. I would like you to forgive me for not addressing the issue that way. I’d like to address the issue from the standpoint of agriculture itself and the impact pipelines have on agriculture production on the BC Agriculture Land Reserve (ALR).
We are all familiar with the usual extractions of agriculture land from the ALR for reasons of “progress”: a new mall, a parking lot, an industrial park, a new housing project or religious establishment—anything seems to go. In one local case, even a swap for a dyke to protect other agriculture land. The government itself wants to open up the land reserve in the interior region for more development. Now add energy pipelines. I am sure everyone knows, pipes are buried underground and we just carry on as usual. Right? NO! Not so fast. When pipelines were built in the past, the soil was mixed, leading to sagging and compaction. If you are a real keener, go to Google Earth and find a picture from space that still clearly shows pipes running through farmland though they were installed in the 1950s. Yes, the soil damage still exists. Also, did you know that pipelines actually heat up the ground around them via friction and accelerate crop growth above? Now imagine you have a pipe like that under your crop and that entire section ripens early; and when you are finally able to harvest it is overripe and lost to you. Not so good, is it?
What if something is wrong with the pipe and the company needs to check or repair it? In an emergency, there may be lots of water pooling; and some examples show that even in the absence of an emergency, repairs are conducted when soil conditions are unsuitable for heavy loads, resulting in soil compaction. Mostly, today, environmental laws and rules ensure companies are held responsible to make every effort to lessen the impact on farm land. Several lifts of soil are mandated, so that soil horizons are not mixed. Work is shut down when the soil is wet to avoid excessive compaction. The original right of way documents, as well as current environmental plans filed with the National Energy Board, look great on paper and following them would be a real pleasure when the necessary work is done. After all, what we are after is that the farm, once disrupted for a year or two, gets back to regular business and that the pipe can be forgotten.
In the end, all of society loses if we do not defend our agriculture land. The planet is running out of decent agriculture land as populations swell and demand for high quality food increases.
This ideal scenario is not always the case. In some areas, the pipe is so close to the surface that heavy machinery cannot cross over without causing an incident that results in helicopters and trucks from the company screaming in and the farmer now responsible for a major fine. Did you know that you must have permission to deep plow across the pipe, and that in some areas you are not able to deep plow to disturb the plow pan? Yet, in the agreement with the pipeline company, it says that normal farm practices are allowed. So a swath of 60 feet on the pipeline right of way cannot be farmed properly and leads to loss of crop. Well, you say, the company needs to reimburse me for the losses. Do not count on it. In a construction project of that sort, you cannot gain.
On the right of way, the energy companies, with the protection of the National Energy Board (NEB), rule. If you do not believe it, check out the website of the NEB, or email or call the Canadian Association of Energy Pipeline Land Owners. The latter has been fighting for the rights of landowners against the NEB and pipeline companies for many years now and examples can be found on many websites. You may actually find a reference to some little-known facts, such as when pipelines get to the end of their lifetime and are abandoned, the landowners become responsible if something goes wrong! Or, that the NEB has changed regulations without consulting landowners, allowing 100 feet of workspace on either side of the ROW without compensation. So, what to do? What to do to protect our farm land, our source of family income and the very environment in which we live?
Before a company enters the property, a proper contract needs to be negotiated. The NEB enables the companies, of course, and it takes a lot of work and fighting to get there. Membership in an association and sticking together helps plenty.
In the end, all of society loses if we do not defend our agriculture land. The planet is running out of decent agriculture land as populations swell and demand for high quality food increases. By 2050, we will have 9 billion people on the planet; we are now just over 7 billion at the time of writing. Scary? You bet!
We use energy from oil and gas sources, we use the products made out of the oil and gas, and we’d be hypocrites saying no to them. The real challenge is to get the NEB and the energy companies to recognize that farmland is as important as the air we breathe and the water we drink, and that protection of that environment is paramount. Business contracts are a must to protect our farmland for future generations.
This author is a farmer. This author is host to a pipeline right of way. This author has been negotiating with pipeline companies. This author has worked with energy companies to help valuate losses to farmers. He’s been there. I hope I have stimulated some discussion and some peaceful actions and I hope this article will inspire everyone to learn more about both sides of the story. Then my job will be done.