Land agents unfairly portrayed – Opinion

Haynes is a land agent based in Camrose, Alta.

As a land agent, I would like to respond to the recent spate of editorial drive-by muggings that seem to be targeting our profession. (WP, April 5 and other media)

I had hoped in time to witness a more balanced style of journalism where an effort would be made to seek out the other side of the story but in absence of that, I would like to put my own nickel on the table.

First of all, let’s talk statistics. Listening to some people, you would think that farmers are under siege from the oil and gas industry in Alberta. But here’s what happened in 2006. In total there were more than 58,000 applications for projects requiring Alberta Energy and Utility Board approval. This included everything from oil and gas to power and gravel. Of that number, more than 23,000 were for the oil industry.

Of the 23,000, there were 2,500 landowner objections, of which 144 were resolved through staff facilitation meetings and 19 through third party mediation. Of the balance, 53 hearings were scheduled and 20 of those were withdrawn after successful dispute resolution.

So out of 23,000 oil and gas applications, less than half of one percent went to an actual AEUB hearing. To me, that’s an indicator that things can’t be too bad out in the oil patch.

I’ve never had the opportunity to meet Mr. Ray Strom and he may well be a terrific guy. And I’m betting that over the years he’s learned many things in certain areas of negotiating oil and gas agreements. But that’s not the issue.

At issue is whether an activity that requires a broad and uniform knowledge of industry procedures, government regulation and legal expertise that can affect people’s pocketbooks should be left in the hands of just anyone who wakes up one morning and hangs out a shingle as an expert land negotiator.

Currently, the conventional entry into this profession involves a two-year program of study at Olds College and one year of supervised apprenticeship under a land agent who has held a licence for more than three years. The supervising land agent doesn’t have to work for industry as Mr. Strom implies. There are land agents out there (few, I grant it) whose sole activity is working for landowners. There is no law that stipulates who you work for once you’re a licensed land agent.

If a land agent knowingly and repeatedly behaves in a careless or unethical manner that causes financial injury to a landowner, he or she can be called on the carpet in front of the land agent registrar, who oversees our profession, and have his or her licence suspended or revoked indefinitely.

This is similar to other professional bodies such as the Law Association, the College of Physicians and Surgeons or the Association of Professional Chartered Accountants.

If, on the other hand, a self proclaimed expert counsels a landowner to do something that later turns out to be calamitous, there is no provincial regulator to turn to for redress or to stop that individual from continuing to inflict harm on others.

Mr. Strom says this is a dark day for landowners because now there is no one to represent them. This allegation would indeed be damaging if it were true.

Even if landowners didn’t have access to licensed land agents, there are any number of first-rate oil and gas lawyers in Alberta who are retained often to represent landowners for negotiations, at AEUB hearings as well as Surface Rights Board hearings. And what’s more, in most of the hearings, the tab for the landowner’s lawyer is picked up by the oil company.

I would say that this is more than fair.

I’d also like to comment on how land agents seemed to be painted in the press as conniving villains bent on stealing the land from gullible farmers.

First of all, I think farmers deserve a little more credit. A surprising number of the new generation of farmers I deal with have agricultural degrees and at the very least a growing number of them are well versed in issues dealing with the oil patch, thanks to the many surface rights and synergy groups that have been holding local town hall meetings for many years.

My personal view is that there are two important ingredients required to be a successful land agent.

The first is to do good work for both parties involved in any issue. The second is to build strong relationships.

In the areas I work, I often knock on the same door many times. You get to know people. It’s rare when I am not treated to good Alberta farm hospitality of coffee and cake and often I am invited to share a meal.

On many occasions I get to meet the kids of these folk and they certainly hear about my two daughters.

If I was going around stealing their land, my career wouldn’t last six months because I could never go back into an area the second time. And for the record, it is illegal for land agents to work on any sort of a commission basis.

So no, I don’t see myself as a villain. Instead I try to do the best work I can for my landowners and strive to ensure that the relationship between them and the energy company is as good as it can be.

At the end of the day, I have a hard time feeling sympathy for Mr. Strom and others who want to jump the educational and licensing queue into which the rest of us have invested our time and money.

My advice is to get your training, get licensed and then you can represent whomever you want. If you provide good service, you should have no end of work. If you do people harm, then at least you are in a position where a Land Agent Registrar can discipline you.

That’s the way the system currently works in Alberta and unless someone can come up with a better model, I’m hoping it continues like this into the future.

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