Aerial drones are known as tools to help farmers in the field, but the gadgets are becoming increasingly known in court rooms or dispute hearings to help farmers more quickly resolve cases, and maybe get a better deal.
Keith Wilson, an agriculture and environmental lawyer who has worked in Alberta’s Farmers’ Advocate Office, has been using drone video footage as evidence since 2014.
The footage, he said, has come in handy when oil and gas companies propose to build new pipelines and wells. As well, it can be used in cases that involve drainage flooding, spray drift, surface rights compensation and land expropriation.
“What the drone does is it allows me to take the decision maker right there,” Wilson said. “One of my clients had once said he wished he could get the judge to sit in the seeder or the combine so, with this we take them to the farm, and they see it from that perspective.”
As well, farmers can better articulate their arguments to the panel or judge when they have footage to use, Wilson added.
“It’s tough getting up on the stand and not everybody is articulate, and, jeez, if the judge can’t get it, and I can’t get you to get it out, then you lose your case and shouldn’t because the facts are on your side,” he said.
While not all cases result in total wins, such as where pipelines are completely diverted, Wilson cited cases in which footage has prompted panel members to impose conditions on pipeline approvals, where companies are required to bore it rather than leave an open trench.
In other cases, footage has caused parties to settle without going to a hearing, or costs are reimbursed to farmers.
“There are lots of cases where a company tries to confuse the board so they can pay 40 percent less to save money; they’re overly focused on shareholder value,” Wilson said. “That’s just the way these things work. However, in those cases, that’s where the drone becomes a great equalizer because it captures all the evidence.”
Don Guenette, a farmer near Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., used drone footage during an Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) hearing in an attempt to get TransCanada to reroute a pipeline that was proposed to cross four sections of his land diagonally.
“We were showing the panel that the eastern route was better be-cause it had higher land and it was less congested,” he said. “It also didn’t have a permanent wet spot.”
Guenette still lost the case. When compared to other routes, the AER concluded the route that cut though Guenette’s lands had less of an effect on landowners, Indigenous communities, water courses and wetlands.
However, Guenette said the drones were still helpful.
“It was worth the shot,” he said, noting the pipeline is now buried in his land. “It helped us explain our case, and we were able to show them how the operation works.”
Wilson said he hopes more farmers and lawyers use drone footage in the future.
“When I see the costs involved in some of these disputes, so many of them could be resolved more quickly and that would be so much better for everyone,” he said. “But it would be particularly helpful for farmers and ranchers that operate in a very large landscape. Their land is very important to them.”