Newly disclosed data shows need for inquiry into fracking
In May 2014, B.C.’s then-minister of natural gas development, Rich Coleman, came out swinging when a team of Canadian and American scientists issued a report saying that fossil-fuel-industry fracking operations could contaminate surface and groundwater sources.
“The reality is we’ve been doing this for over 50 years, we’ve never had a contamination from a drill, we’ve never had a drill stem leak or fail,” Coleman said. “We do it as well or better than anybody else in the world.”
The nobody-does-it-better refrain hasn’t gone away. Just last month in B.C.’s legislature, Liberal health critic Mike Bernier and B.C. Energy Minister Michelle Mungall both claimed there was “zero” evidence of groundwater contamination by fracking operations.
Well, those politicians’ comments are contradicted by key facts that B.C.’s Oil and Gas Commission (OGC) had in hand four years ago, but apparently never told our elected leaders about until forced to a little over two weeks ago.
This latest revelation of questionable actions by B.C.’s oil-and-gas-industry regulator underscores why numerous groups want the government to launch a public inquiry into all aspects of fracking, including a critical look at the commission’s laissez-faire regulation of the industry.
The OGC has faced controversy for months since revelations emerged that it allowed its gas-industry “clients” to build about 50 unlicensed dams to trap freshwater used in fracking operations. One of those dams was as tall as a seven-storey apartment building.
Now news has surfaced of an “internal” report written by OGC staff and hidden from the public for four years. The report identifies nearly 50 gas wells where methane was verified as “migrating” from fracked wells and possibly 900 well sites where gas might be migrating. The report warns that migrating, or escaping, gas could “enter potable water aquifers and cause groundwater contamination.”
If that conclusion isn’t troubling enough, the report’s findings apply to only a fraction of territory where gas-drilling and fracking occurs in B.C. The most intensely exploited operating areas were excluded from the study. “The confidence level of this estimate is very low,” the report’s authors emphasize, adding, “there is no estimate of the frequency of gas migration for the central or south zones.”
The suppressed report only saw the light of day in November when the OGC posted it on its website after receiving questions from veteran investigative reporter and author Andrew Nikiforuk, who had obtained a leaked copy of the document.
Phil Rygg, the OGC’s director of public and corporate relations, told Nikiforuk that the report was considered an “internal” document only, apparently not deemed a matter of public concern. According to Rygg, because the document was for internal use it “was not provided to politicians.”
If Rygg is correct and Coleman and subsequently Mungall were never given copies of the report, it raises extremely troubling questions. Is the regulator knowingly keeping ministers in the dark, including after they make erroneous statements inside or outside the legislature? If so, we have a serious problem.
And that’s not the only thing to be concerned about.
When the suppressed report was prepared in December 2013, fracking companies were required to report all known “gas-migration” problems to the OGC and to then “eliminate” those problems. Stopping gas from migrating at a leaking well, however, is extremely expensive and can cost millions of dollars. This may explain why, in 2015, the OGC expunged this requirement from the regulations itself. Incredibly, the OGC board can make such changes, whereas in almost all other cases changing a provincial regulation requires an Order in Council signed by the relevant cabinet minister and lieutenant-governor.
A public inquiry into fracking in B.C. can’t come soon enough.
Ben Parfitt is a resource policy analyst with the B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. The CCPA is among 16 groups calling on the province to hold a public inquiry into fracking.
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