VANCOUVER — Environmental groups are taking the British Columbia Oil and Gas Commission to court for allowing oil and gas companies to withdraw vast quantities of fresh water from lakes, rivers and streams for fracking operations without proper approval.
The lawsuit seeks an order declaring the Commission’s practice of repeatedly granting short-term water approvals to oil and gas companies is unlawful. Encana Corporation, one of B.C.’s natural gas players, is also named in the suit.
“Our clients’ position is that the Oil and Gas Commission is violating the Water Act and thereby unlawfully allowing oil and gas companies drain water from lakes, rivers and streams in the northeast for drilling and fracking,” said Karen Campbell, Ecojustice staff lawyer. “Our clients are worried that the hundreds of short term approvals issued every year under the Water Act are having an impact on water resources and the environment.”
Ecojustice has brought this case on behalf of Sierra Club BC and the Wilderness Committee.
Under B.C.’s Water Act, there is a two-year limit on short-term water approvals. Where a company wants long-term water rights, they are required to obtain a water licence. However, the Commission’s practice of repeatedly granting short-term approvals has allowed oil and gas companies to use water for longer than the two-year limit, in some cases for as long as five years, without getting a water licence.
For instance, between February 2007 and October 2010, four Commission approvals authorized Encana to withdraw nearly 880 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of water from two points along the Kiskatinaw River. That means that over that three-year span, Encana was authorized to take more water from the river than the population of nearby Dawson Creek uses in one year. It is also possible that there were more withdrawal points along that same river, in addition to withdrawal points on other lakes and rivers in the region.
The Kiskatinaw River, which supplies drinking water for Dawson Creek, has recorded low flows in recent years. Droughts in the region have also significantly reduced river flows and concerned local residents.
“People who live near gas drilling and fracking 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 we need to ensure that B.C.’s water is protected for people and the environment, not offered on a platter to oil and gas companies.”
“The B.C. government’s LNG agenda comes with a cost, and the cost is B.C.’s water,” added Caitlyn Vernon, Sierra Club BC Campaigner. “The proposed new LNG industry would require a huge increase in drilling and fracking, sucking northern lakes and rivers dry and contaminating watersheds — just as we’re seeing increased droughts due to climate change.”
What is fracking?
Fracking involves injecting large quantities of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure down wellbores. The pressurized mixture causes the rock layer to fracture and release the natural gas trapped in the formation. As part of the fracking process, significant quantities of contaminated wastewater typically flow back up wellbores afterward, requiring safe disposal.
The contamination of millions of cubic metres of water and emissions contributing to climate change are among the environmental impacts associated with fracking.