VANCOUVER — In a disappointing turn of events, the Supreme Court of British Columbia has ruled that the oil and gas industry — and other major industrial users — do not require a water licence for long term access to the province’s freshwater resources.
“Our clients are disappointed with this outcome, but they are even more disappointed by the fact that B.C.’s new Water Sustainability Act, introduced just days before this case was heard, expressly legalizes the practice they were challenging in court,” said Morgan Blakley, Ecojustice staff lawyer. “The curious timing certainly seemed to signal an intent to undermine the case, which only legitimizes the concerns they raised.”
In effect, the Water Sustainability Act will ensure that oil and gas companies can continue to rely on short-term permits to withdraw large quantities of B.C.’s water for fracking and drilling operations instead of going through the more rigorous process of getting a water licence.
Earlier this year, environmental groups appeared before the Court to challenge the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission’s practice of repeatedly granting short-term water approvals to oil and gas companies. If companies want long-term access to the province’s freshwater resources then they need to apply for a full water licence, not rely on repeated short-term approvals, Ecojustice lawyers — representing Sierra Club BC and the Wilderness Committee — argued.
The case was brought under B.C.’s Water Act. But just days before the Court heard the case, the provincial government rolled out its long-awaited Water Sustainability Act, which includes language that seems to specifically target the groups’ arguments.
“It’s a clear example of the law being changed to suit industry needs,” said Caitlyn Vernon, campaigns director with Sierra Club BC. “Making it legal doesn’t make it right. Rather than address the concerns about water management, the Water Sustainability Act entrenches the practice of granting repeated short-term approvals in law, allowing oil and gas companies to pollute and squander B.C.’s precious rivers and streams.”
Though the Commission now requires companies to self-report on the amount of water they take, available reports do not capture all water use by the oil and gas industry. The more water industrial users take, the less water there is to sustain ecosystems or for people to drink.
“People who live near gas drilling and fracking operations are worried about their water. They fear contamination, potential shortages, and what further gas development will do to the environment,” said Eoin Madden, climate campaigner with the Wilderness Committee. “The bottom line is that these approvals essentially offer up the province’s water on a silver platter, at a time when climate change and other threats are already putting this precious resource under stress.”