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Sask. surface rights law weighted in favour of companies, say rancher, expert

Stephanie Fradette, a rancher from Lake Alma, Saskatchewan, recently found herself in a daunting position, facing off against corporate lawyers from Crescent Point Energy Corp., a Calgary-based oil and gas company. Fradette drove 150 kilometers to Regina to represent herself in a hearing, seeking what she believed the company owed her for the use of her land.

Fradette's case revolves around a pipeline built by Crescent Point Energy on her property, shedding light on broader concerns about surface rights laws in Saskatchewan and the quasi-judicial body responsible for handling disputes. The province's surface rights laws often lean in favor of resource companies, leaving landowners, particularly in rural areas, feeling overwhelmed.

Many deeds in Saskatchewan are superficial, with private landowners typically not owning what lies beneath their property. Resource companies can purchase rights to elements below the surface but must acquire surface rights before accessing the land.

In Fradette's case, Crescent Point Energy sought to build a flow line on her property, including near her house. The company proposed leaving the old line in the ground, leading to a dispute. Despite the requirement to restore the land as per surface rights legislation, companies often argue against digging up old lines due to potential soil disturbance.

Fradette opposed Crescent Point Energy's right-of-entry application, but the seven-day objection period had elapsed by the time she received notice, rendering her objections invalid. The Surface Rights Board of Arbitration granted the company access, emphasizing concerns about the limited objection window.

Compensation hearings, like the one Fradette attended, determine payment for acquired surface rights. However, the board's secretary mentioned that a compensation order for Fradette's case is pending.

Saskatchewan Energy and Resources Minister Jim Reiter described surface rights as a delicate balance between supporting businesses and protecting landowners. Recent amendments empower the arbitration board to levy greater fines for property damage and expand its purview to include helium and lithium.

Critics argue that the law and the board often favor companies, creating a sense of cynicism among property owners, primarily farmers and ranchers. Concerns about biased arbitration processes and doubts about receiving fair compensation have persisted over the years.

Emily Eaton, a professor of geography and environmental studies at the University of Regina, highlights the prevailing culture of silence in rural Saskatchewan, where property owners may feel pressured to comply with companies seeking surface rights. Opposing industry projects is often considered taboo, potentially threatening community prosperity and family jobs.

Despite the challenges, Fradette remains committed to standing her ground, skeptical about receiving fair compensation. The surface rights law, which hasn't seen significant amendments since 1968, continues to face scrutiny, with calls for a more balanced approach that prioritizes the rights of landowners in the face of resource development.



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