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B.C.'s oil and gas commission far from 'world class'

Rick Griffiths The recent agreement between Yukon and B.C. to co-operate on the regulation of the oil and gas industry is a clear indication of the Yukon Party government's agenda. First, this announcement comes at a very critical juncture while the sele

Rick Griffiths

The recent agreement between Yukon and B.C. to co-operate on the regulation of the oil and gas industry is a clear indication of the Yukon Party government’s agenda.

First, this announcement comes at a very critical juncture while the select committee of the Yukon legislature is considering the risks and benefits of hydraulic fracturing, but before it has concluded its assessment, its consultation with Yukoners in their communities and before it has reported to the legislature.

The announcement suggests that the Yukon Party has decided to press ahead with oil and gas development using hydraulic fracturing, making the select committee’s work mere window dressing.

Is this another Peel consultation in the making?

Secondly, Ron Sumanik, director of oil and gas resources with Yukon’s Department of Energy, Mines and Resources, claims the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission is a “world class regulator.” The commission’s CEO, Paul Jeakins, and Kevin Parsonage, supervisor of field engineers and technical investigations, spoke to the select committee during hearings in Yukon’s legislature on Jan. 31. Among their statements:

1. “We (B.C.) need to build a legislative framework to respond to unconventional approaches” (i.e. hydraulic fracturing) to exploit oil and gas. One would have thought that having progressed well down the hydraulic fracturing road that B.C. would have had such a framework in place long ago.

2. No baseline water studies existed prior to beginning fracking in B.C. Wouldn’t a “world class regulator,” seeking to protect the province’s most important resource, have undertaken studies to determine water quality and characteristics before permitting development? (Baseline studies can be used to measure the effect of development on a water source.)

3. Of the “produced water” that returns to the surface after fracking, “65 per cent is disposed of” in open storage ponds. (Although lined, serious leaks have occurred and the liners can break down over time. This produced water cannot be released into the environment as it contains highly toxic chemicals, including known carcinogens).

Environment Canada has just confirmed what other studies have previously indicated - that tailings ponds from the Alberta oil sands are leaking toxic chemicals into groundwater that seeps into the Athabaska River.

4. Although intensive fracking has been going on for close to a decade, raising significant concerns over the health of workers and residents, B.C.‘s oil and gas commission is only now “starting to work with health authorities in northeastern B.C. to look at health effects.”

5. B.C.‘s oil and gas commission has “just acquired the tools” to monitor leaking wells. Rick Chalaturnyk, a geotechnical engineering professor who spoke to the select committee, said that all wells will leak overtime. Leaking wells permit the escape of methane and other greenhouse gases, and put at groundwater at risk.

6. B.C.‘s oil and gas commission couldn’t or wouldn’t reveal the percentage of non-compliant wells. There is a minimum period against disclosure of three months to two years. In 2012, there were over 800 deficiencies found in just over 4,200 inspections. “But it is not possible to find details of the violations, or which company is responsible, because the commission will not provide that information,” the Vancouver Sun reported in February 2013.

7. B.C.‘s oil and gas commission could not speak to how the cumulative emissions from the projects they have approved will contribute to greenhouse gases and to Canada’s ability to meet its target to reduce emissions from 2005 levels by 17 per cent by 2020. With the catastrophic consequences of climate change evident on an almost daily basis, an assessment of these emissions is a necessity.

In addition, B.C.‘s oil and gas commission did not mention that it is facing a lawsuit from Ecojustice “for granting repeated short-term water permits for use in fracking - a violation of the provincial water act.” Short-term water permits are meant to be of short duration, for months or up to two years, but this regulator has allowed approvals of up to five years, contrary to B.C. law.

One of the significant problems associated with this “world class regulator” is that it is a single regulatory agency. As it stands, the regulator assesses industry applications, is supposed to consult with First Nations, approves water permits and licences and monitors and ensures compliance. It’s a clear conflict of roles.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives suggests “compliance and enforcement in the natural gas sector should be separated from the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission” and made part of the Ministry of Environment.

According to the presentation of Fort Nelson First Nations, also given to the select committee, there are several deficiencies in the regulatory regime administered by B.C.‘s oil and gas commission, with a lack of consultation and accommodation being a prime example. Fort Nelson’s First Nations have seen once-robust caribou herds decimated and an environmental disaster in the making.

What is clear is that this “world class regulator” is running well behind the industry that it is meant to oversee, that it is too closely aligned with the very industry it is meant to be monitoring, that it is not transparent when it comes to fracking violations, and that the public cannot depend upon them to protect the public interest first.

If this is “a world class regulator,” then world standards have declined sharply, and we in Yukon have to be seriously worried about this agreement and its implications.

Rick Griffiths is a member of Yukoners Concerned about Oil and Gas Development and has lived in Whitehorse over 40 years.

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