Although they are often traveling, when home, Vern “drives truck” for his daughter, who has taken up some of the farming. But farming is changing, he says, and there are several factors. Subdivision into acreages, the shift toward larger farms and fewer farmers, not to mention the size of equipment, and the price of land which has put farming out of reach for the kids are all things that change the way Vern and Carol see the place they call home.
Oil and gas, on the other hand, have long been a part of the Hemeyers’ rural life. Vern’s first exposure came naturally in 1953 when they first got power and the hand pump on their water well was replaced with a pressure system. “There was gas in the water,” he says, “especially every morning when you turned on the tap.”
The first oil wells didn’t come until several years later, one on the original homestead in 1986, and three more in the following couple of years on Vern and Carol’s property. In the early 2000s, there was further drilling and last year, the first horizontal wells were drilled. This week, below their home, there is a fleet of trucks and equipment fracking two wells, both on the same pad where four more will soon be drilled.
With the exception of a few small issues that have been resolved, Vern and Carol have had a very positive relationship with oil companies, particularly in recent years, says Vern. Years ago, a seismic company had left a 60 foot hole open, causing surface water to drain into their drinking water aquifer. Vern says the bathtub had been full of silt, and “the kids couldn’t have been that dirty because they hadn’t been in [the tub] yet.” The problem cleared up when the company returned to fill the hole.
“Compared to what it used to be 25 years ago, the drill rigs and their crews are quite concerned about landowners, at least the people we’ve dealt with”, says Vern. “We don’t have anything negative to say about our recent dealings with the oil companies or the frack companies.”
That’s not to say the Hemeyers are entirely happy with the activity on their property. While their relationship with the oil companies has been good, the activity and the presence of the wells themselves have taken away from the things Vern and Carol love about the land they live on.
“When the oil first came in here 25 or so years ago,” says Vern, “everybody was hoping for an oil well, because there’s big money in oil and not unlike the rest, we naturally wanted an oil well. It wasn’t too bad to start with, but when we decided to build this particular house that we’re living in, it happened to be just before the first well went in here. And we sat up here on the hillside with a window frame, trying to decide where we were going to have the ‘new house view’, so we got the best view of the valley… And then the very next year, they drilled the first well, which was right in the middle of the valley between the old house and the new house. And we lived through it. When it was all finished and reclaimed and they had a pump jack there it was tolerable. Now they are planning on six more wells on the same pad… That aspect of it doesn’t fit into what our original view was.”
He continues to explain that although it would have been nice if the wells were behind the bushes, it was up to the oil company to determine the well location. If they had not agreed to lease the six additional wells, Vern says the company would have either taken the case to arbitration or placed the wells directly across the road, which really wouldn’t be an improvement to either the view or the noise. Furthermore, they would still drill right underneath the property line to the same zone they were initially targeting beneath the Hemeyer land. Vern’s father owns the mineral rights through a shared trust and the well location was less important since the royalties are prorated according to how much of the horizontal bore is beneath the property in question. With this in mind, Vern says “there was no point in fighting it, and the particular drillers now, compared to what was before are very good to get along with, and that includes the frack crew.” He did, however, express slight frustration that there had been an attempt to negotiate lower royalty rates on the fifth and sixth wells, really without reason.
Carol explained that they could see the grandfather’s old homestead from the bedroom window and that she had been able to watch her husband working down at the bottom of the hill. “Now that isn’t the case, and the idea of looking across the valley and the peacefulness of it and so forth is basically gone,” she says. The view has been altered enough that they have decided to let the trees grow up in front of their house. “By hiding the oil well, we’ve also hidden the view that we planned on enjoying,” says Vern.
“Money is not everything,” adds Carol. “The land is really special to us and it’s kind of like, what do you do about it? There’s not very much you can do about it, except just go along with progress. But we still have a sense of loss because it’s not just the view, it’s the peacefulness of the area and of the valley which is marred in a sense.”
The screeching noises of the frack site can be heard by the neighbours down the road despite its location down and over the hill. Vern’s cousins live within a mile and their son is unable to build a house on the quarter section next door because the oil plant there draws in so many pipelines that there’s no longer a point on the property where a house would be far enough from the lines to meet regulations. The Hemeyers also find the heavy traffic during drilling to be irritating while the increased frequency of trespassers who use the lease roads is one of the biggest issues.
The Hemeyers haven’t yet had problems with drinking water like their neighbours the Campbells have had just across the road. Vern trusts that the oil companies will work responsibly and that they will respect the water tests that Vern had done in the case that anything were to go wrong. “Who knows? Maybe we’ll be crying in our soup one day,” says Vern.
In general, the Hemeyers emphasize that their interactions with the oil companies have been good. For Vern and Carol, it’s not the companies themselves that are the problem, it’s more the fact that as landowners, they do not seem to have much choice in the matter.
Vern explains that they are not always given much notice about oil activities on their land. “It’s often an eleventh hour decision,” he says, “the ink isn’t dry before they’re unloading the cat… The timeline is strictly on the side of the oil companies and not on the side of the landowner.”
Carol also feels as though there’s not much she can do. “If you don’t need the money, but you don’t have a choice, you might as well take the money.”
“A lot of people just look at it as a source of money,” says Vern, “but the amount of money you get on surface rights— it’s more than you might get on that three or four acres from farming it, but it’s not necessarily worth what you’re losing.”
What troubles the Hemeyers most about the wells is that eventually, their son and daughter will likely inherit the farm. Carol says their son had pointed out to them that it would all be left for them to clean up. She mentions that pipes get old and are expensive to remove from the ground if it becomes necessary while Vern points to the possible contamination of soil that might later become a problem. “Right now, you’ve got an oil lease so that that makes your land worth more… When it comes to the reclamation end, it’s a definite liability, because nobody knows. It’s like an old gas station.”
Carol laments that if anything ever goes wrong, it will be her children, or her grandchildren, that are left to deal with the problems. “I don’t think the oil will go on forever,” she says, “and sooner or later, what’s left behind, something has to be done with it.”
– Hans Asfeldt, May 30