Vancouver Sun


Government is putting energy before our health and safety,

- Ben Parfitt writes: Ben Parfitt is a resource policy analyst with the B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternativ­es, and author of Fracking Up Our Water, Hydro Power and Climate: B.C.’s Reckless Pursuit of Shale Gas, a 2011 report that called

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.

 ?? NEXEN ?? A freedom-of-informatio­n request shows officials have worried for years that fracking could destroy a B.C. Hydro dam.
NEXEN A freedom-of-informatio­n request shows officials have worried for years that fracking could destroy a B.C. Hydro dam.

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