Town and Country, Tuesday, September 24, 2013
View the article as published in the Town and Country
Athabasca native helps launch film series about impacts of fracking
‘There’s a lot of pressure on landowners and on Albertans to keep quiet’
“There are Albertans who have experienced oil and gas activities, and the impacts that they’re experiencing are not being addressed, and their stories are not being heard at the government level, the industry level or the public level,” said Asfeldt, a student of global and development studies at University of Alberta – Augustana in Camrose.
The short films — five in total — may not receive the fanfare and fêting that accompany a film festival premiere, but they have the advantage of reaching a wide audience immediately and consistently, as they are being launched online at www.albertavoices.ca every Tuesday for a month and a half.
Besides, a red carpet was never the end game for Asfeldt, 21, and fellow Augustana student Alison Bortolon, video journalists for project called Alberta Voices. A better and more inclusive conversation about oil and gas activity in the province is the goal.
The fracking film series is only one facet of the Alberta Voices project, which Asfeldt and Bortolon launched this summer under the mentorship of Augustana graduate Rajan Rathnavalu and professor Dittmar Mündel on a shoestring budget of under $1,000.
The project website already features videos and articles on people’s lived experiences with any and all oil and gas activity. So far, Alberta Voices has profiled primarily farmers. This includes a retired Athabasca farmer who kept hitting oily sludge when drilling a well for water in the ‘90s and, after some investigation, discovered a waste injection well a few miles up the aquifer.
The website is cautious in its approach: in many cases, the landowners have been unable to prove cause and effect conclusively. At times, they acknowledge their own initial complicity in oil and gas exploration on their property. The result is a nuanced, thoughtful look at citizens’ mixed feelings about oil and gas development, not a vindictive call to arms.
Alberta Voices has eschewed laying the blame for its subjects’ experiences at the feet of a particular oil or gas company, or even the industry in general. Asfeldt said avoiding polarization was a key part of the project.
“You’ve got the environmentalist groups on one side and the industry proponents on the other side, and often neither is willing even to talk with the other,” he said.
He added, “The solutions do not necessarily lie halfway between, and in many cases, it is not a matter of perspective at all. The evidence exists but is not consulted. It is important that constructive dialogue is encouraged regardless of who is right.”
Asfeldt is a relative newcomer to the topic of fracking, the practice of fracturing rock using pressurized water and chemicals to release hard-to-access fuel deposits. He began to study the effects of fracking on water last fall.
His interest extended to the people who relied on that water. He worked with three like-minded academics at a conference about fracking in November 2012; by May of 2013, Alberta Voices had been conceived, and shooting took place throughout the summer.
He found walking through the fields and yards of people whose properties have seen the brunt of oil and gas extraction affecting.
“It can be difficult to see how their situation might improve, given that some of them have been struggling for over a decade, and so it’s difficult to find hope,” he said. “The most striking place that I did encounter that hope was in the very people themselves who were struggling that managed to remain determined for a matter of years … they continue to stand up for what they see as right and worthwhile and important, and that in itself is an inspiration.”
He noted that the Alberta Voices team faced significant limitations, logistical and otherwise.
“Several factors, including time, resources and the willingness of Albertans to speak with us, has made it difficult to speak with people in all areas of the province, but certainly it is an issue that affects all of Alberta.”
Asfeldt said they would have liked to interview someone from one or more of Alberta’s First Nations, but it did not work out. “They should be central in directing the path forward,” he said.
Asfeldt noted some of the people who agreed to go public with their stories said their neighbours had similar stories but would not be willing to talk.
“There’s a lot of pressure on landowners and on Albertans to keep quiet about any concerns they might have,” he said. “Whether that’s because they’re employed by the oil and gas industry and fear losing their job, whether it be because they fear that their property value will plummet if others in the area discover that there are water issues or air pollution — there are all sorts of reasons that people are hesitant to talk about the impacts that oil and gas has had on them and their families.”
Asfeldt added that another reason some people may stay silent is because they have signed a non-disclosure agreement with an oil or gas company — a practice Asfeldt believes should be illegal.
“Any environmental issue or health issue should not be allowed to be covered up,” he said. “I suspect that if these non-disclosure agreements were uncovered, a lot of information would be disclosed to the public that would reveal endless cases of environmental impacts, of health impacts and breaches of government policy in any number of ways.”
Asfeldt says so far, there has been no backlash against the project, though he concedes there have been “different levels of agreement and disagreement.”
He encourages all Albertans, regardless of whether they agree with the views on Alberta Voices so far, to get involved.
“The website serves as a database for any experience Albertans have had with oil and gas on their land,” said Asfeldt. “We’re encouraging all Albertans to participate in the discussion and keep that discussion going for likely years to come, as the issue’s not about to go away.”
Asfeldt, who is slated to graduate in 2015, says the Alberta Voices project has piqued his interest in journalism and law: fields where he champions or shares others’ stories.
“I feel the stories this project will share are important, but none of them would be shared without the willingness of Albertans to take the risk of sharing those (stories), and they have my full respect for standing up to that past,” he said.