Last year, a dubious record was set when a magnitude 4.6 earthquake was triggered near Fort St. John during a natural gas industry fracking operation.
The tremor was just the latest to be linked to the controversial brute force gas extraction technique, and almost certainly was noted at BC Hydro’s corporate headquarters in downtown Vancouver, a 13-hour drive away.
Unbeknownst to residents in the region or in BC more generally, senior officials at the publicly owned hydro utility have been alarmed for years about fracking’s destructive powers.
In fact, since at least 2009, dam safety officials at BC Hydro have worried that fracking near one of its Peace River dams could possibly destroy the dam.
The facility in question is the Peace Canyon dam near the community of Hudson’s Hope. Faults near the dam bear similarity to those near the Baldwin Hill Dam in Los Angeles, which failed in 1963, spilling hundreds of millions of gallons of water onto households below. Five people were killed in that disaster, which was linked to oil and gas company “fluid injection” operations. In a worse case scenario, BC Hydro officials fear fracking could trigger a similar tragedy here in B.C.
The fact that such fears have been withheld from the public for nearly a decade—and have only now surfaced in documents that BC Hydro was compelled to release under a formal Freedom of Information request—is, to put it mildly, a concern.
But of even greater concern is the utter lack of action to date by Premier Christy Clark, Energy Minister Bill Bennett and the rest of our elected leaders. The provincial government is ultimately responsible for BC Hydro. It issues permits to companies granting them rights of access to natural gas and other resources. It can tell fossil fuel companies where they can operate, and it can just as easily tell them where they cannot. But it isn’t doing so.
“In my view, which I have already shared, the province should simply add buffer zones around any very Extreme and Very High Consequence Dams, where hydraulic fracturing [fracking] cannot be undertaken without a prior full investigation into the risks, and an implemented risk management plan,” one exasperated BC Hydro official wrote in a 2013 email released with the FOI materials. “Why is this so difficult?”
One explanation is that our government views their economic development plans as more important than health and safety concerns. The cornerstone of those plans, relentlessly promoted before, during and after the last provincial election, is to get Malaysian state-owned Petronas and other companies to invest billions of dollars to build Liquefied Natural Gas processing plants on BC’s coast.
Should just one such plant materialize, gas drilling and fracking would skyrocket. “Carpet bombing,” is how one senior safety official with BC Hydro describes it. Much of that “bombing” would take place on either side of the Peace River, including along what could one day become the reservoir impounded by a new, controversial, $9 billion dam on the Peace River – Site C.
Remote as the possibility may be that fracking could destroy BC hydro’s two existing dams on the Peace River—the massive W.A.C. Bennett dam, which impounds the world’s seventh-largest reservoir, or the Peace Canyon dam 23 kilometres downstream of it—the Crown corporation isn’t idly waiting to find out.
For nearly a decade it has quietly worked with BC’s oil and gas industry regulator, the Oil and Gas Commission, to try to exclude fracking within five kilometres of both dams and of its proposed Site C dam.
An “understanding” has emerged between the two that no new tenures allowing companies rights of access to gas resources in the exclusion zones will be granted. As for companies holding existing rights, the OGC and BC Hydro say they will work together to ensure protections are in place in the event that a company proposes to drill or frack for gas.
But the understanding does not take the form of a formal regulation. Worse, Energy Minister Bill Bennett, whose ministerial portfolio includes BC Hydro, hasn’t said a word about it.
Interestingly, a similar set of circumstances prevails in Alberta where TransAlta, a private hydro provider, has worked behind the scenes with Alberta’s energy industry regulator to prohibit fracking near its dams and reservoirs. But as is the case here, there is no clear, written regulation prohibiting the use of such destructive technology near critical public infrastructure.
British Columbians, in particular those living downstream of the Peace River’s dams, deserve better. Northeast BC may be vast in size, remote and rich in natural gas, but that should not mean a fracking free for all.
For the health and safety of people in the region and to protect water and hydro resources that all British Columbians depend on, it’s long past time that the provincial government acted.
First, it should declare firm “no-go zones” where all fracking is prohibited, with immediate attention to the Peace River valley’s hydro dams and reservoirs
Second, it should transfer powers to set no-go zones from the OGC to the provincial Environment Ministry. The OGC is simply too closely tied to the industry it regulates to have credibility on this file.
And third, the government should require provincial Ministry of Health or Ministry of Public Safety personnel to review all proposed fracking operations, and deny any that endanger public health and safety.
Finally all of this must be done in a transparent way. When the health and wellbeing of communities is at stake, “understandings” are not enough.
Ben Parfitt is a resource policy analyst with the BC Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and author of Fracking Up Our Water, Hydro Power and Climate: BC’s Reckless Pursuit of Shale Gas, a 2011 report that called for fracking exclusion zones.