British Columbia Gets a Conditional “F” in Fracking

By Roy L Hales

Screen-shot-2014-03-18-at-3.43.47-PM1Western Maryland sits on top one of the most controversial shale deposits in North America. There were 245 cases of water contamination in the neighbouring state of Pennsylvania and reports from West Virginia as well. Maryland’s Departments of Environment and Natural Resources have been studying fracking operations in these two states for over three years and just released a draft report (p 2 of attached) on how fracking “can be accomplished without unacceptable risks of adverse impacts to public health, safety, the environment, and natural resources.” These proposed rules are the strongest in the US and, using them as a criteria,  I decided to grade the LNG development in my province. British Columbia gets a conditional “F” in Fracking.


Pump sucking water out of a creek for Fracking operation at Pink Mountain between Fort St John and Fort Nelson, BC. - Courtesy Joe Foy, WIlderness Committee, CC by SA, 2.0
Pump sucking water out of a creek for Fracking operation at Pink Mountain between Fort St John and Fort Nelson, BC. – Courtesy Joe Foy, WIlderness Committee, CC by SA, 2.0

I am not a believer in this technology. One of the strongest arguments for accepting it would appear to be that the monied interests are too strong to stop, so it is better to make the industry as clean as possible. (I am not convinced that is true in BC, though it may be in Maryland.)

As I was researching this story, it occurred to me that we all take risks every day. There were 2,227 traffic fatalities in Canada and 32,788 in the US, during 2010. That hasn’t stopped us from driving cars. So the questions become what is an acceptable risk? and when do the benefits outweigh it?

One of the things I like about Maryland’s proposed fracking rules is they would remove most of the uncertainty. Reports of water contamination are usually accompanied by industry denials. According to  Amanda Frank, Policy Analyst for the Center for Effective Government, it is difficult to prove fracking (and the associated pipes, seals, fracking wells ect) are responsible if you aren’t monitoring groundwater near the wells. That goes both ways: if this industry is as clean as some maintain, monitoring would supply the the data that proves it.

(You can listen to my interview with Amanda in the podcast at the bottom of this page, or read an article based on it here. )

Using Maryland’s proposed fracking rules as measuring stick, I sent a number of questions, and the associated press release,  to the provincial government. A spokesperson from BC’s Oil & Gas Commission responded.

These are some of the questions that I thought BC gave satisfactory  to:

Q: Does BC allow the use of diesel as a fracking fluid? 

A: “Diesel is not currently used as a fracturing fluid.”
(That gets a B,  Maryland is proposing an outright ban of diesel for fracking)

Q: Does BC require that companies submit a detailed list of chemicals they use in fracking?

A: “We were the first province in Canada to regulate the public disclosure of additives used for hydraulic fracturing. The website, FracFocus.ca, contains information on the process of hydraulic fracturing and how groundwater is protected. It also stores a public registry where companies upload data about their hydraulic fracturing operations.”
( Another B – Maryland wants a list of all chemicals brought onto the site, regardless of their intended use, in case there are any leaks or last minute switches in the additives used while fracking. – BTW listen to the comment about using FracFocus in the radio interview below.) 

Screenshot 2014-12-06 05.34.00
Maximum allowable Noise Levels – Courtesy (draft) Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Study

Q: Does BC require noise reduction equipment? And if so, what kind? and what provisions are in place for enforcement?

A: Requirements regarding noise control are defined under Section 40 of the Drilling and Production Regulation, stating that “permit holders must ensure that operations at a well or facility for which the permit holder is responsible do not cause excessive noise”.

“The noise control best practices are consistent with other Canadian jurisdictions and provide additional guidance regarding expectation in meeting legislated requirements. To ensure compliance the Commission may perform random audits on production facilities and if it determines that an event causes excess noise, as per the guideline, the Commission may suspend operations.”

( Though it would be interesting to know what they mean by “excessive noise,” this looks like another A )

Q: Does BC have any requirements that operators monitor and fix methane leaks? and if so, what provisions are in place for enforcement?

A: “B.C. regulations require wells to be tested for leaks at the time of well completion, at the time of well abandonment and at regular intervals throughout the lifecycle of the well. The Commission undertakes regular inspections of wells, and enforcement actions may include penalties or orders to immediately fix issues or cease operations.”

(The press release I sent him referred to “operators to fix methane leaks and offset any methane emissions that occur during drilling.” I should have asked about leaks through-out the system, but the omission was mine and BC gets an  A)  

Q: What are the required setbacks from buildings and wells in BC?

A: “The regulatory framework in B.C. is designed for the safe and environmentally responsible management of oil and gas activities. Section 5 of the Drilling and Production Regulation states that a permit holder must not drill within 100 metres of a place of public concourse.

Under the Oil and Gas Activities Act, The Consultation and Notification Regulation, requires industry to consult with stakeholders on any oil and gas proposals. The Commission takes the results of these consultations into account when reviewing applications to ensure all safety aspects are addressed.

Setback chart - Courtesy (draft) Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Study
Courtesy (draft) Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Study

“The Commission also conducts an enhanced review process, addressing distances of proposed projects from schools. This enhanced review process is initiated anytime industry proposes oil and gas activities within 2,000 metres of a school. In this review, specific safety aspects of the proposed project are evaluated, including proximity to nearby structures, emergency planning zones and procedures, and air monitoring requirements.” 

(The question involved setbacks from buildings and drinking wells. The reference to wells is important because it involves the need to protect drinking water. I would give BC an “F” on the whole test if I thought there was no set-back.  Instead, I am not going to mark this question. In Maryland, the minimum setbacks are 1,000 feet from an occupied building, school, or church and 2,000 feet from private drinking water wells.)

Q: Is BC requiring that operators submit a plan? and, if so, for how many years in advance?

A: “Operators in B.C. apply for activities on a per-project basis. In terms of land management and minimizing footprints, the Commission employs its Area-Based Analysis initiative, which is an approach to resource stewardship that evaluates oil and gas at the landscape level in order to better understand the relationship between various oil and gas activities and reduce overall surface impacts. For more information see the Oil and Gas Land Use in Northeastern BC report.

(Maryland requires that operators submit drilling plans “detailing the location of well pads and other infrastructure” for the next five years BEFORE permits are issued. This ensures that regulators know details like where roads will go in and how the area will be cleaned up after the hydraulic fracturing is finished. BC’s “per-project basis” sounds haphazard by comparison. I was going to give the province an “F” on this question but upon reflection, am revising that to C-.) 

I gave the province a conditional “F” overall because of this question:

Q: Is BC requiring that operators submit two years monitoring of ground surface water near well sites BEFORE obtaining a permit and also that they continue monitoring AFTER the permit is issued?

A:  There is no regulatory requirement for groundwater monitoring in B.C. unless specified by a permit. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers does have voluntary guidance on this topic. In BC, hydraulic fracturing takes place over two kilometres below any potable ground water. Surface and ground water are protected from below-ground activities. There have been no documented cases of groundwater pollution in BC associated with the process of hydraulic fracturing. More information is available here: http://www.newsroom.gov.bc.ca/ministries/natural-gas-development/factsheets/factsheet-bcs-water-protected-by-regulations-and-oversight.html

Oil Rig in Northern BC – Qyd, Courtesy Wikipedia Commons
Oil Rig in Northern BC – Qyd, Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

(Two kilometers is 6,561 feet. In the Marcellus Shale they are  typically drilling 5,000 to 9,000 feet below the surface. Pennsylvania did not disclose the extent that oil and gas activities were contaminating for six years, then the state’s Department of Environmental Protection revealed that in 245 cases it had “determined that a private water supply was impacted by oil and gas activities.” Not too long after that, a joint study from the British Geological Survey and Durham University reported water contamination associated with 6% of Pennsylvania’s gas wells . There have been at least 122 complaints about water contamination in West Virginia. .

As Amanda Frank said in the podcast below, “You might have seen the film Gasland, where folks will turn on their taps and light the water on fire because of methane contamination, but unless operators have actually done pretesting of this water you really can’t say fracking did it. You might be absolutely sure, but you don’t have the scientific evidence.”

Given the widespread reports of fracking related groundwater contamination through-out the US, monitoring would seem to be a matter of common sense. Dismissing the need for this by saying BC does not have documented cases of groundwater pollution is irresponsible. This is serious enough to warrant giving BC a conditional “F” overall. I would upgrade that substantially, IF the province put appropriate  monitoring  provisions in place.)

“These rules are very strong, but there is always room for improvement and what I would like to see is what is going to be their policy for enforcing these regulations. It’s one thing to have good regulations, but are you going to have inspectors as well to make sure that industry is in compliance? And if industry has a spill or accident, are you going to enforce the penalty?” said Amanda Frank.

She also says, “These regulations will lower the rate of instances, but you are always going to have room for error.”

So my questions are, at what level is the risk acceptable? And what about developing alternative technologies – like geothermal or solar – which offer substantial gains and considerably less risk?

Click on this link to access the ECO Radio interview with Amanda Frank  and commentary about BC getting an “F” in fracking.

Links of Interest:

(Image at top of page:  In areas where shale-drilling/hydraulic fracturing is heavy, a dense web of roads, pipelines and well pads turn continuous forests and grasslands into fragmented islands – Courtesy Simon Fraser University, CC BY SA, 2.0)

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