Newly disclosed data shows need for inquiry into fracking

December 11, 2017

In May 2014, British Columbia’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 waters 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 word.”

The nobody-does-it-better refrain hasn’t gone away. Just last month in BC’s Legislature, Liberal health critic Mike Bernier and BC 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 BC’s Oil and Gas Commission (OGC) had in hand four years ago but apparently never told our elected leaders about until forced to do so a little over two weeks ago.

This latest revelation of questionable actions by BC’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 now since revelations emerged that it allowed its gas industry “clients” to build approximately 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 identified nearly 50 gas wells where methane gas was verified as “migrating” from fracked wells and possibly 900 well sites where gas might be migrating. The report warned that the migrating or escaping gas could “enter potable water aquifers and cause groundwater contamination.”

If that conclusion wasn’t troubling enough, the report’s findings applied to only a fraction of territory where gas drilling and fracking occurs in BC. The most intensely exploited industry operating areas were excluded from the study. “The confidence level of this estimate is very low,” the report’s authors emphasized, 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 the report was considered an “internal” document only, and 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 that is indeed the case, 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 minister and Lieutenant Governor.

To recap: 

  • Successive BC Energy Minsters claim there’s no evidence of gas industry-caused water contamination. 
  • The OGC has information that directly contradicts that, but fails to disclose it to relevant ministers or the public. 

While sitting on a report that is of obvious public interest, the regulator absolves companies of responsibilities to “eliminate” gas migration and potential water contamination problems at leaking wells, saving the industry millions.

A public inquiry into fracking in BC cannot come soon enough. 

Ben Parfitt is a resource policy analyst with the BC office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. The CCPA is among 16 organizations calling on the province to hold a public inquiry into fracking.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Vancouver Sun.