A full public inquiry, with powers to call witnesses and gather research, is needed to investigate natural gas fracking operations in B.C., says a coalition of 17 community, First Nations and environmental organizations.
The group, which includes the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, David Suzuki Foundation, Public Health Association of B.C. and West Coast Environmental Law, is appealing to the NDP government to call a public inquiry — instead of the scientific review promised during the election campaign — because of mounting evidence of problems caused by fracking.
“We believe that the NDP’s campaign promise to appoint a scientific panel to review fracking won’t be enough to fully address the true risks of deploying this brute force technology throughout northeast B.C.,” said Ben Parfitt, a resource policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, one of the organizations asking for an inquiry.
Fracking — or hydraulic fracturing — involves pumping large volumes of water into the ground at high pressure to break open rocks or fissures and extract oil or gas.
Problems include excessive water usage, induced earthquakes, poor consultation with First Nations and the proliferation of dozens of unlicensed, earthen dams, constructed by companies ignoring provincial water laws.
The BC Greens have called on the NDP to investigate the use of unapproved dams.
The use of fracking in B.C. comes with serious implications, Parfitt said.
“We have significant earthquake activity that is being generated in the northeast of the province, with the largest earthquakes associated with fracking operations occurring in B.C., and we also have strong indications that the amount of water that is being used, and subsequently contaminated, is at a level that is not seen anywhere else on the continent,” Parfitt said in an interview.
At a Progress Energy site near Fort St. John, where, in 2015, the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission confirmed a record-setting 4.6 magnitude earthquake was caused by fracking, the company was using eight times more water than used at operations anywhere in the U.S., Parfitt said.
“The water volumes are very, very significant and there is a correlation between the tremendous amount of water being used and the earthquakes that are cropping up,” he said.
BC Hydro has expressed concern about fracking in areas near major dams and a public inquiry could look at whether there should be exclusion zones, he said.
One reason for the excessive use of water in areas such as Montney Basin is to coax valuable gas liquids to the surface. The presence of the gas liquids is one reason fracking operations are increasing even though natural gas prices remain low.
Gas liquids include light oil, condensate, butane and propane. Condensate from the Montney Basin is used to dilute bitumen from the Alberta oilsands.
Air as well as water is affected by fracking and there is compelling evidence from the David Suzuki Foundation that more methane is venting into the atmosphere from oil and gas operations than previously reported.
“That is going to have a serious impact on our greenhouse gas emissions in the province,” Parfitt said.
Peer-reviewed research from the Suzuki Foundation found that methane pollution, largely from fracking operations, is 2.5 times more than reported by the industry and the provincial government.
Ian Bruce, Suzuki Foundation science and policy director, said the province must make controlling methane pollution a priority and then ensure the industry helps come up with solutions.
“Right now, we know that British Columbians are not getting accurate and transparent information about the real environmental damages from oil and gas activities,” Bruce said.
For First Nations, a major concern is unlicensed dams built on First Nations land without consultation.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs president, said the dam-building free-for-all and effects of excessive water use by the industry is deeply troubling.
“There are still no substantive or meaningful opportunities to fully participate in decisions around how water resources are managed in our respective territories,” he said in a news release.
“We need a credible, strong, independent inquiry to get to the bottom of this,” Phillip said.
Among questions that need scrutiny are the public health effects, said Larry Barzelai of the B.C. Chapter of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.
Recent U.S. studies have shown increases in premature births, asthma and congenital heart disease in people living close to fracking operations, Barzelai said.
“Can we be assured that the same complications will not occur in B.C.? We think that a properly funded public inquiry, with a comprehensive and strong mandate, is needed to answer critical questions such as these,” he said.
Public inquiries in B.C., such as probes into forest industry practices, have produced useful recommendations, but the gas industry has never been subjected to such scrutiny, Parfitt noted.
Among questions the group wants addressed are:
- The extent of consultation with First Nations and whether it meets standards set by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
- Public health and safety risks.
- Risks to the environment and water resources.
- Risks to critical infrastructure, such as dams.
- Increases in greenhouse gas emissions.
- Whether there is adequate monitoring and transparency by the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission.
During this year’s election campaign the NDP acknowledged there are questions about fracking and the party’s election platform said: “With the potential of significant expansion of gas production in the years ahead, we will appoint a scientific panel to review the practice to ensure that gas is produced safely and that our environment is protected.”
The review will include an assessment of the impacts on water and “given recent minor earthquakes in the area,” what role gas production has in seismic activity, it said.
So far, the government has not moved on the scientific review and the mandate letter, given by Premier John Horgan to Energy Mines and Petroleum Resources Minister Michelle Mungall, makes no specific mention of the review, although it could be encompassed in more general endorsements of sustainability and respect for First Nations.
Neither Mungall nor Green Party spokespeople were available to comment by deadline for this story. However, later Monday the Ministry of Energy and Mines sent along a statement from Mungall:
“The provincial government is attentive to the concerns expressed about hydraulic fracturing in British Columbia, and we respect the diversity of opinions shared with us by third parties and stakeholders.
“We will act on our commitment and appoint a scientific panel to review hydraulic fracturing in British Columbia. This will include looking at impacts on water and the relationship to seismic activity. Further details will be announced in the near future.”
In 2016, after a scientific study was published drawing a direct line between fracking and earthquakes in the Western Canada sedimentary basin, on the Alberta/B.C. border, Green Party leader Andrew Weaver called for a “moratorium on horizontal hydraulic fracturing until there is a better understanding of its risks.”
In a September interview with DeSmog Canada, Weaver said the problem was not so much the existence of fracking, but the free-for-all approach.
“The right approach would be to pause and reflect on the cumulative impacts of our wild-west approach to resource extraction here in B.C.” Weaver said.
The Green platform called for creation of a natural resources board, which could take a detailed look at the cumulative effects.
Image: Premier John Horgan tours the AltaGas Ridley Island propane export facility. Photo: Province of B.C. via Flickr