B.C. SHOULDN’T ALLOW FRACKING FREE-FOR-ALL
Government is putting energy before our health and safety,
Last year, a dubious record was set when a magnitude 4.6 earthquake was triggered near Fort St. John during a natural gas industry fracking operation.
The tremor was just the latest to be linked to the controversial brute force gas extraction technique, and almost certainly was noted at B.C. Hydro’s corporate headquarters in downtown Vancouver, a 13-hour drive away.
Unbeknownst to residents in the region or most of B.C., senior officials at the publicly owned hydro utility have been alarmed for years about fracking’s destructive powers. In fact, since at least 2009, dam safety officials at B.C. Hydro have worried that fracking near one of its Peace River dams could possibly destroy the dam.
The facility in question is the Peace Canyon dam near the community of Hudson’s Hope. Faults near the dam bear similarity to those near the Baldwin Hill Dam in Los Angeles, which failed in 1963, spilling hundreds of millions of gallons of water onto households below. Five people were killed in that disaster, which was linked to “fluid injection” operations by an oil-and-gas company. In a worst-case scenario, B.C. Hydro officials fear fracking could trigger a similar tragedy in B.C.
The fact such fears have been withheld from the public for nearly a decade — and have only now surfaced in documents B.C. Hydro was compelled to release under a formal freedom-of-information request — is, to put it mildly, a concern.
But of even greater concern is the utter lack of action to date by Premier Christy Clark, Energy Minister Bill Bennett and the rest of our elected leaders. The provin- cial government is ultimately responsible for B.C. Hydro. It issues permits to companies, granting them rights of access to natural gas and other resources. It can tell fossil fuel companies where they can operate, and it can just as easily tell them where they cannot. But it isn’t doing so.
“In my view, which I have already shared, the province should simply add buffer zones around any very extreme and very high consequence dams, where hydraulic fracturing (fracking) cannot be undertaken without a prior full investigation into the risks, and an implemented risk-management plan,” one exasperated B.C. Hydro official wrote in a 2013 email released with the freedom-of-information materials. “Why is this so difficult?”
One explanation is our government views its economic development plans as more important than health and safety concerns. The cornerstone of those plans, relentlessly promoted before, during and after the last provincial election, is to get Malaysian state-owned Petronas and other companies to invest billions of dollars to build liquefied natural gas processing plants on B.C.’s coast.
Should just one such plant materialize, gas drilling and fracking would skyrocket. “Carpet-bombing” is how one senior safety official with B.C. Hydro describes it. Much of that bombing would take place on either side of the
Peace River, including along what could one day become the reservoir impounded by a new and controversial $9-billion dam on Site C of the Peace River.
Remote as the possibility may be that fracking could destroy B.C. Hydro’s two existing dams on the Peace River — the massive W.A.C. Bennett dam, which impounds the world’s seventh-largest reservoir, or the Peace Canyon dam 23 kilometres downstream of it — the Crown corporation isn’t idly waiting to find out.
For nearly a decade, it has quietly worked with B.C.’s oiland-gas industry regulator, the Oil and Gas Commission, to try to exclude fracking within five kilometres of both dams and of its proposed Site C dam. An understanding has emerged between the two that no new tenures allowing companies rights of access to gas resources in the exclusion zones will be granted.
As for companies holding existing rights, the commission and B.C. Hydro say they will work together to ensure protections are in place in the event that a company proposes to drill or frack for gas.
But the understanding does not take the form of a formal regulation.
Worse, Bennett, whose ministerial portfolio includes B.C. Hydro, hasn’t said a word about it.
Interestingly, a similar set of circumstances prevails in Alberta where TransAlta, a private hydro provider, has worked behind the scenes with Alberta’s energy industry regulator to prohibit fracking near its dams and reservoirs. But as is the case in B.C., there is no clear written regulation prohibiting the use of such destructive technology near critical public infrastructure.
British Columbians, in particular those living downstream of the Peace River’s dams, deserve better. Northeast B.C. may be vast in size, remote and rich in natural gas, but that should not mean a fracking free-for-all.
For the health and safety of people in the region and to protect water and hydro resources that all British Columbians depend on, it’s long past time that the provincial government acted.
First, it should declare firm no-go zones where all fracking is prohibited, with immediate attention to the Peace River valley’s hydro dams and reservoirs.
Second, it should transfer powers to set no-go zones from the Oil and Gas Commission to the provincial environment ministry. The commission is simply too closely tied to the industry it regulates to have credibility on this file.
And third, the government should require personnel with the provincial ministry of health or ministry of public safety to review all proposed fracking operations, and deny any that endanger public health and safety.
Finally, all of this must be done in a transparent way. When the health and wellbeing of communities is at stake, understandings are not enough.
British Columbians, in particular those living downstream of the Peace River’s dams, deserve better.