B.C. Oil & Gas Commission sat on critical industry practices, states independent audit
The B.C. Oil and Gas Commission knew in 2014 that gas drillers weren’t consistently following rules to protect threatened boreal caribou herds, but has held the audit report showing those results under wraps, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives alleges.
According to the Vancouver Sun, the audit – conducted by a wildlife biologist in April 2014 – was a follow-up work in the province’s 2011 recovery plan for seven threatened caribou herds in B.C.’s far northeast. While biologist Dan Webster submitted his results to the commission, it was never released publicly, according to the CCPA. The advocacy group, however, received a copy of the audit report “in an unmarked brown envelope,” said researcher and policy analyst Ben Parfitt. Parfitt said the CCPA forwarded a copy of the report to the Fort Nelson First Nation, which had requested one but never received it. The CCPA released Parfitt’s briefing document May 28.
“It’s no surprise, given the circumstances of the audit’s ‘release,’ that the suppressed document shows that, over and over again, companies broke the very modest rules to protect the caribou,” Parfitt wrote in a briefing document.
The region around Fort Nelson was heavily drilled earlier in the decade using techniques of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to establish gas reserves in anticipation of a potential, liquefied-natural-gas export industry.
Drilling has since fallen to a near standstill, Parfitt wrote, which mitigates concerns raised in the audit.
What Webster found, however, included well pads that were built larger than necessary, repeated failures to restore well sites and repeated failures to place visual blocks across roadways and pipeline corridors to protect caribou from their chief predator, the gray wolf.
And Parfitt said the leaked report marks the third time in less than a year that the CCPA has gleaned information about concerns with industry operations through Freedom of Information requests or other means that the commission has withheld or delayed releasing.
In the first case, Parfitt, through an FOI request, unearthed documents showing that drilling companies were building unauthorized dams to store water for fracking, including inspection reports and enforcement orders. Parfitt said the documents were posted to the commission’s website “belatedly,” subsequent to his FOI request.
In the second case, the commission, in late 2017, posted the results from a 2013 investigation into the prevalence of methane leaks from natural-gas wells.
Commission spokesman Phil Rygg, in an emailed statement to Postmedia News last fall, said its officials had tightened up regulations as a result of the probe.
Parfitt, at the time, said the multi-year delay in making its results public also withheld potentially damaging information about the industry at a time that the government was promoting the potential for an LNG export sector.
And in his paper, Parfitt argues that the incidents help make the case that responsibility for enforcing rules of the oil and gas industry should be separated from the commission.
Parfitt said the province has examined the issue both in fish-farming, following a 2007 legislative committee review, and mining, after the 2014 Mount Polley tailings-dam failure. In both cases, Parfitt said conclusions were that policing of the industries should be done by independent agencies.
“It’s hard to see how a similar conclusion cannot be reached when examining the (commission’s) compliance and enforcement efforts,” Parfitt told the Vancouver Sun.
The agency, he said, is “effectively saddled with a contradictory mandate to both promote and regulate the gas industry,” he said. “The promoter has failed to be the enforcer.”
In a news release, Stewart Phillip, grand chief of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, said the “troubling pattern” of these cases is also a strong argument for giving Indigenous communities more say over resource development.
“It’s long past time that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was implemented in B.C.,” Phillip told the Vancouver Sun. “Resource extraction should only happen with the free, informed, prior consent of First Nations.