Guest column: What the frack is going on in the Peace?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

In B.C.'s Peace River region, farming families and First Nations are witnessing an unprecedented rush on water resources, a rush driven by energy corporations that need copious amounts of water to produce natural gas.

Last year, Bob and Terry Webster got a first-hand taste of just what the water rush means. It's left them and many of their neighbours wondering what the future holds for the region they call home and for one of our most precious natural resources.

The Websters own a buffalo farm on Beryl Prairie, west of Hudson's Hope and a short distance from Williston Lake, the reservoir in the north-central region of the province created by the building of the W.A.C. Bennett Dam.

During the summer of 2010, single-and double-tanker trucks ran constantly up and down local roads, filled with water pulled from surrounding streams, rivers and lakes. The water was destined for use in hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" operations — a process used in at least half of all the gas wells drilled in B.C. and one that is certain to increase.

Fracking involves pumping huge volumes of water at high pressure deep into rock beds to fracture the rock and release natural gas. At some B.C. fracking operations, where a dozen or so wells are drilled at one location, upwards of 600 Olympic swimming pools worth of water is pressure-pumped underground, water that subsequently returns to the surface heavily contaminated with a range of toxins that can include chemicals, minerals, heavy metals and radiological compounds.

Last September, with their parched fields reduced to stubble by the worst drought in 50 years, the Websters were visited by a Talisman Energy Inc. official and surveyors, there to situate a proposed pipeline.

Talisman's proposal was subsequently replicated by Canbriam Energy Inc., with both companies proposing to build parallel pipelines across the Websters' land, each capable of delivering 3.65 million cubic metres of water annually from Williston Lake to the Ferrell Creek area.

The pipeline proposals are potentially precedent setting in that they would herald prolonged industrial water withdrawals from the hydroelectric reservoir that provides B.C. with one quarter of its power.

Yet most B.C. residents know nothing of these proposals or dozens of others like them, which would result in large volumes of water being used to produce a fossil fuel that some say is the natural-gas equivalent of tarsands oil, so energy and water intensive is its production.

In the traditional territory of the Fort Nelson First Nation, there are 17 active long-term water-licence proposals that would give natural-gas companies access to nearly 20 million cubic metres of water per year, more than 100 times what Vancouver's 643,000 residents are estimated to use.

Independent MLAs Bob Simpson and Vicki Huntington used the recent (and rare) legislative session to raise questions about water withdrawals as part of their effort to strike a special committee of the legislative assembly to investigate all aspects of the emerging unconventional gas industry.

In response to questions, Energy and Mines Minister Rich Coleman assured the House on June 1 that there would be an "extensive process of public consultation, discussion and negotiations with First Nations before anything would go ahead," relating to the Talisman or Canbriam water applications.

But no such public consultation occurred. Instead, on June 21 the Websters received a fax from B.C.'s energy industry regulator, the Oil and Gas Commission, saying that Canbriam's water pipeline application had been approved. The Websters asked whether or not Talisman had also received an approval, and were informed that Talisman's proposal had been approved four days earlier.

This certainly left local residents with the impression that the massive water-diversion project was a done deal. With the OGC having granted Talisman and Canbriam permission to build the pipelines if they received water licences from the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, could the licence approvals themselves be far off?

Late last week, CBC Radio reported that a decision on the licences will be made at the end of this month, meaning that two months will have passed since Coleman committed to an "extensive" public process.

If this is what extensive looks like, managing public water resources in the public interest appears to be in a whole lot of trouble.

Ben Parfitt is a resource policy analyst with the B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

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Ben Parfitt