Fossil fuel companies broke numerous rules intended to protect threatened caribou, suppressed report shows

May 28, 2018

VANCOUVER – BC’s Oil and Gas Commission sat on a damaging audit for nearly four years that showed companies that drill and frack for natural gas repeatedly broke rules intended to protect threatened boreal caribou. 

The document, obtained by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), underscores lax regulatory oversight of fossil fuel companies by the Commission (OGC). 

“Fracking companies are breaking the rules. And for the third time in less than a year, documents that spell out how they break the rules are suppressed by the OGC. The time has come to take enforcement powers away from the OGC and turn them over to another agency,” says CCPA resource policy analyst, Ben Parfitt, author of a just-released exposé  on the threatened caribou. 

The leaked document is an audit prepared for the OGC by an independent professional biologist. The audit concludes that natural gas companies failed to comply with a “recovery plan” developed by BC’s environment ministry in 2011 in response to the federal government officially listing boreal caribou as a threatened species in Canada. 

Boreal caribou are among a number of distinct caribou populations in BC and across Canada that are in decline due to industrial developments that have fragmented critical habitat for the species. This makes it easier for wolves, their main natural predator, to hunt and kill them. 

A cornerstone of BC’s recovery plan for boreal caribou was for fossil fuel companies to follow new “Interim Operating Practices” to protect the species. But the audit, suppressed by the OGC, found that the new rules were frequently violated, including evidence that the companies: 

  • built gas-drilling pads well in excess of what they were supposed to.
  • expanded the size of already excessively large drilling pads by building giant water storage pits and other industry infrastructure right beside the over-sized pads.
  • constructed roads and pipeline corridors without barriers to break up sightlines, which allowed wolves to see their prey from miles away.
  • failed to restore or rehabilitate industrial sites so that they became suitable habitat to where caribou could safely return. 

“The audit of the Interim Operating Practices found that not only was compliance low in general with the measures it contains, but that often these measures were not prescriptive enough, allowing for companies to avoid them or seek exemptions from them,” concludes the audit, which is stamped “draft” and dated May 29, 2014. 

The OGC has not published the audit draft or any subsequent draft of the report on its website even though the document prominently displays the OGC’s organizational name and logo on its cover page. The audit included helicopter flyovers of many gas industry operations as well as field surveys with both OGC personnel and representatives of the Fort Nelson First Nation present. A request to the OGC by the First Nation for a copy of the audit went unanswered. 

“There is a troubling pattern here,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs. “First Nations learn after the fact that unlicensed dams have been built on their lands. Then they learn after the fact that water may be contaminated at hundreds of fracking sites on their lands. And now they learn after the fact that fossil fuel companies are violating rules to protect one of the most threatened species in their territories. It’s long past time that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was implemented in BC. Resource extraction should only happen with the free, informed prior consent of First Nations.” 

One of the province’s preeminent environmental organizations said the audit’s evidence of widespread industry non-compliance with the “recovery plan” is troubling and the OGC’s failure to do anything about it is more troubling still. But the bigger concern is that the recovery plan itself is weak. Under the BC plan: 

  • gas industry developments would continue on at least three quarters of the lands where threatened boreal caribou are found.
  • gas drilling and fracking activities would continue on those lands for half a century.
  • boreal caribou numbers would fall from 1,300 animals to just over 530 – a 58 per cent decline. 

“Like canaries in a coal mine, caribou aren’t surviving oil and gas developments in northeastern BC,” said Sierra Club BC campaigns director Caitlyn Vernon. “BC’s lax regulatory oversight of fossil fuel industry activity in caribou habitat is clearly failing to effectively protect caribou. We need to dramatically improve provincial recovery plans for this iconic species, not only in the boreal zone but throughout the province from the far south to the far north.” 

For more information and to arrange interviews, please contact Jean Kavanagh at 604-802-5729 or jean@policyalternatives.ca.

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