The energy industry’s insatiable thirst for water threatens First Nations’ rights

June 29, 2017

In early May, evidence emerged that natural gas companies had built dozens of large dams during a poorly regulated building spree.

As many as 60 large earthen structures were bulldozed into place by fossil fuel companies—without first getting the required authorizations from provincial authorities.

The dams trapped water from numerous sources including fish-bearing streams, seasonal streams, wetlands and ditches that were cleverly designed to channel their contents into the dams’ reservoirs. Natural gas companies trapped all of that freshwater and more for use in their controversial fracking operations.

Many of the dams were built on the traditional lands of the Blueberry River First Nation (BRFN), which is currently suing the province, seeking compensation for the cumulative damages to its lands by government-approved industrial activities.

Three quarters of BRFN territory lies within 250 metres of one industrial disturbance or another. The result? BRFN members can no longer practice their constitutionally protected treaty rights to hunt, trap or fish across vast swaths of their traditional territory. 

Adding to worries for the BRFN and its neighbors is how all the water impounded by those dams is being used. Two years ago, Progress Energy fracked a gas well in the BRFN’s territory to the north of Fort St. John. Andrew Nikiforuk, an award-wining investigative writer, noted how Progress pumped 160,000 cubic metres of water underground at the site to liberate gas from deep belowground. Progress’s water use was nearly eight times more than that used in the typical North American frack job. Its relentless water pumping triggered a 4.6 magnitude earthquake felt 180 kilometres away. 

BC First Nations are routinely bombarded with natural gas company development proposals including plans to pump water, dig water pits, punch roads into remote forests and clear lands for subsequent drilling and fracking. They are given little time to respond to individual proposals and virtually no voice in influencing the rate, timing or location of gas industry developments more broadly.

The result is a death by a thousand cuts: a progressive degradation of lands and waters.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples characterizes such degradation as an assault on both people and land. That is why it explicitly acknowledges the “urgent need to respect and promote the inherent right of Indigenous peoples . . . especially their rights to their lands, territories and resources.”

Provincial NDP and Green Party members have publicly committed to implement the UN Declaration. The need to immediately set a new course in northeast BC is obvious, and doing so could constitute an important step towards implementing the Declaration. First Nations must have an effective voice in shaping fossil fuel industry developments while there are still territories to protect.

Co-management may be a good place to start. It has already been done right here in BC. After decades of struggle rooted in protests over logging old-growth forests on Haida Gwaii, for instance, landmark cooperation agreements were eventually reached between the Council of the Haida Nation and federal and provincial governments to co-manage a national park, Haida Heritage Sites, culturally important forests and managed forests or timberlands on the island chain. 

Co-management of lands in northeast BC could curb the worst excesses of natural gas industry activities. Combined with other reforms, it could help to ensure that First Nations are able to carry out their treaty-protected rights.

Other complementary reforms include requiring natural gas companies to signal well in advance where they want to drill and frack for gas; establishing firm “no-go” zones and special management zones where higher levels of performance are a prerequisite for any development; and seeing natural gas companies pay far higher rates for industrial water usage, with the additional funds collected channeled into badly needed baseline water studies. 

In the face of an energy industry onslaught that has damaging consequences for First Nations, BC is long overdue for meaningful reforms.


Ben Parfitt is a resource policy analyst with the BC Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and author of Fracking, First Nations and Water: Respecting Indigenous rights and better protecting our shared resources.