Gushing Lawlessness

Illegal fracking dams, unreported leaky wells – Oil & Gas as usual in Canada's wild west

Delores Broten

BC's illegal fracking dams | photo by Garth Lenz

Photo by Garth Lenz

Three major reports in the spring of 2017 have indicated that the oil and gas industry in BC and Alberta is either unregulated in important aspects or ignoring what regulations do exist. The implications for water in BC’s northeast and for built-in-Canada climate change do not make reading for the faint-hearted. The Wild West is the scene of fossil fuel corporations riding roughshod over laws, regulators, and their own financial interests.

The dam problem

Progress Energy, a subsidiary of Petronas, the Malaysian state-owned petro-giant courted to build the Lelu Island LNG plant, has built at least 16 unauthorized dams in northern BC to trap hundreds of millions of gallons of water for use in its fracking operations.

The 16 dams are among “dozens” that have been built by companies without proper authorizations, a senior dam safety official with the provincial government told the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), which began investigating the problem in late March after receiving a tip.

Records obtained by the CCPA indicate that BC’s Oil and Gas Commission, Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (FLNRO), and the BC Environmental Assessment Office are aware of numerous unauthorized dams in gas country.

Two of the dams built by Progress Energy are towering earthen structures higher than five-storey apartment buildings. Because of their size, they should have been subject to review by BC’s Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) and to further provincial authorizations.

Construction on these huge dams began five years ago with no due process, and last year one of the Progress/Petronas dams showed signs of failure, at which point the Oil and Gas Commission ordered that it be “de-watered.”

The dams are located close to natural gas industry drilling and fracking sites. Fracking involves pumping immense amounts of water under extreme pressure below ground to force out gas trapped in dense rock formations. Throughout northeast BC, the intensity of that pressure-pumping has triggered numerous earthquakes, including a 4.6 magnitude tremor at a Progress/Petronas fracking operation in August 2015. The quake was felt 180 kilometres away.

The full extent of the unauthorized dam building is not yet publicly known, but Jim Mattison, a former comptroller of water rights for the provincial government, who researched the problem for FLNRO using satellite imagery, told the CCPA that the extensive network of energy industry dams and other water impoundment structures is vast. Mattison said there are “certainly more” than 100 large dams that have been built by or for energy companies operating in the region, and possibly 200 or more.

Gassy release

The first ground-based measurement of methane emissions ever conducted in Canada estimates fugitive methane emissions from BC oil and natural gas operations – most of which use fracking – are at least 2.5 times higher than reported.

Over a 20-year period, methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a climate pollutant. Methane may be responsible for 25 per cent of already-observed changes to Earth’s climate – and it is identified as a top climate priority globally, since it is short-lived in the atmosphere but with a high impact.

Scientists travelled more than 8,000 kilometres using vehicle-mounted gas-detection instruments (a sniffer truck), covering more than 1,600 well pads and facilities in BC’s Montney formation. The study, conducted by the David Suzuki Foundation in partnership with St. Francis Xavier University, is undergoing final review in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussions.

The research reveals that BC’s Montney region alone leaks more than 111,800 tonnes of methane into the air every year. This is the climate pollution equivalent of burning more than 4.5 million tonnes of coal.

In April, Environmental Defense released an analysis of research done by GreenPath for the Alberta Energy Regulator, which revealed that Alberta’s oil and gas sector emissions of methane are also 60% higher than reported. The research used infrared cameras to discover leaks and intentional vents of methane. Three hundred and ninety-five distinct facility locations, representing 676 producing wells were inspected, with 77 leaks discovered. A further 236 vents, mostly from tanks and wellhead casing vents, were also identified.

Both organizations make the point that these leaks and vents are fixable with an upgrade of equipment and that this is one of the easiest and lowest-cost things Canadian industry can do to meet climate targets. The pollutant is also valuable: the methane that is escaping every year from devices at Alberta oil and gas facilities alone is worth almost $70 million and would heat 200,000 homes.

In April, Canada announced it was delaying until 2020 plans to regulate methane emissions from oil and gas. Matching US methane emission reductions of 40 per cent, developed under Obama, are now being halted by President Trump.

Canada has 13 years to cut its greenhouse gas emissions, as committed under the Paris climate accord, to 523 million tonnes from the 722 million tonnes officially recorded in 2015.



Ben Parfitt, “A Dam Big Problem: Regulatory breakdown as fracking companies in BC’s northeast build dozens of unauthorized dams,” May 3, 2017

“Mobile measurement of methane emissions from natural gas developments in Northeastern British Columbia, Canada,” April 7, 2017

Canada’s Methane Gas Problem: Why strong regulations can reduce pollution, protect health, and save money,” April 26, 2017

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