B.C. Oil and Gas Commission lacks ‘transparency’ on fracking violations

Oil and gas violations kept under wraps,  B.C. regulator won’t provide details of hundreds of regulatory violations uncovered last year by Gordon Hoekstra, February 19, 2013, Vancouver Su

B.C. Oil and Gas Commission lacks ‘transparency’ on fracking violations by Gordon Hoekstra, February 18, 2013, Vancouver Sun
Hundreds of deficiencies were discovered during the course of 4,223 inspections conducted in the oil and gas sector last year, according to statistics provided to The Vancouver Sun by the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission. But it’s not possible to find details of the violations, or which company is responsible, because the commission will not provide that information. The inspections conducted include those at natural gas drilling sites that use the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing or fracking.

Of the more than 800 deficiencies found by the Oil and Gas Commission, 80 resulted in charges, largely under the provincial Water Act for the non-reporting of water volumes and a smaller portion under the provincial Environment Management Act. Another 13 resulted in orders under the provincial Oil and Gas Activities Act, 22 in warnings, 76 in letters requiring action and three in referrals to other agencies. While the commission released figures for last year’s inspections at the request of The Sun, older information is publicly available on the commission’s website. Its 2010-11 annual report shows that in more than 5,000 inspections, nearly 700 instances of “non-compliance” including six instances of “serious” or “high” level issues were found. Increased water demand and waste and contamination issues were investigated most frequently, said the report.

In response to The Sun’s request for more details of the 2010-11 enforcement information, the commission said it issued 15 penalty tickets with fines of $575 (the maximum allowed for tickets) or less, which included unlawful water withdrawals and failure to promptly report a spill. Court prosecutions included a $20,000 fine for a Water Act stream violation, $10,575 for another stream violation and $250,0000 for a sour gas release. Convictions can carry fines as high as $1 million, in addition to six months in jail. The commission would not release the names of the companies convicted. The B.C. Ministry of Environment and B.C. Crown agencies like WorkSafeBC have for years reported names of companies penalized and details of those penalties. “There’s a lack of transparency, there’s no question of that,” Brian Derfler, president of the northeast B.C. -based Peace Environment and Safety Trustees Society, said regarding the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission. “We would like to see a report card system — we’ve been very vocal about that — so we can actually identify which companies are doing a good job and which aren’t,” said Derfler.

Paul Jeakins, the commissioner and CEO of the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission, acknowledged its reporting of inspection and enforcement results “is a bit of a gap.” He said the commission will be working to address its enforcement reporting in the next couple of months. Jeakins stressed that rules introduced under the Oil and Gas Activities Act in 2010 and enforcement measures provide the means to monitor fracking and protect the environment. “I think we have reacted very quickly, very well in this province. I think we do have very good regulations and I think we have great people working on it,” said Jeakins. Canada’s environment commissioner last week raised alarms when he called for industry to tell Ottawa what chemicals are used during fracking. Scott Vaughan said the information is important to determine the health risks of the practice. In B.C., companies are required to report the chemicals and amount of water used during fracking, at least partly fulfilling Vaughan’s demand. In 2012, 86 per cent of the 476 wells drilled in northeastern B.C. used fracking.

Environmental concerns include the vast amounts of water necessary to frack and the potential for contamination of water sources below and above ground. The B.C. Oil and Gas Commission says its rules are designed to ensure water used in the fracking process never comes into contact with the environment, including groundwater aquifers, during storage, fracturing or disposal. Key rules include strict requirements to use metal casing (pipe), and cementing around the casing to make sure fracking fluid is isolated from groundwater reservoirs. The commission notes that most fracking takes place kilometres below drinking water aquifers, which are generally 18 to 150 metres below the surface. There have not been any incidents of aquifer contamination in British Columbia, said Jeakins. Environmental groups acknowledge there have been improvements in monitoring fracking in British Columbia, but add there is still concern the oil and gas commission is too industry-friendly. The B.C. Oil and Gas Commission is a single-window regulatory agency whose roles include assessing industry applications, consulting with First Nations and making sure industry follows the rules. Centre for Policy Alternatives resource policy analyst Ben Parfitt says compliance and enforcement in the natural gas sector should be separated from the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission and made part of the B.C. Ministry of Environment or Ministry of Forestry, Land and Natural Resources. “I think that separation would give the public a great deal more confidence that there was discipline being brought to bear in terms of ensuring adequate environmental, health and safety compliance,” said Parfitt. The Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria has made a similar recommendation, calling for an independent health and pollution body to research, strengthen and enforce pollution and health rules in B.C. The law centre helped the Peace Environment and Safety Trustees Society review the Oil and Gas Activities Act introduced in 2010, finding the law had vague language and exemptions that hindered its effectiveness. Vague regulations are still a problem, said Calvin Sandborn, director of the Environmental Law Centre. [Emphasis added]

[Refer also to:

EnCana Corporation facing criminal charges

$250000 in community safety projects following Encana deadly sour gas leak ]

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