All posts by Amara McLaughlin

About Amara McLaughlin

Amara is a journalist in Calgary, AB and a student currently completing her journalism degree at Mount Royal University. Her reporting ranges from coverage of social justice issues, outdoor pursuits and environmental activism. Recently she did a reporting stint in the Middle East where she advocated for women’s rights in Israel and the West Bank.


BC gas regulator ignoring public’s LNG concerns

BC Oil and Gas Commission Chief Operating Officer Ken Paulson (Damien Gillis)

The BC Oil and Gas Commission (OGC) is not obligated to address stakeholder concerns with LNG facilities, despite its responsibility to oversee oil and gas operations in the province.

According to its 2014 Service Plan, the OGC is only committed to addressing 75 percent of stakeholder concerns regarding proposed LNG operations. The complaints and questions it does field are only dealt with superficially, before the commission redirects citizens and groups to the Environmental Assessment Office (EAO).

“Since LNG development is in its early stages and the commission hasn’t started permitting projects yet, the OGC does not deal directly with public concerns,” says Hardy Friedrich, BC Oil and Gas Commission communications manager in Fort St. John.

According to Friedrich, the OGC refers concerns to the EAO to address, although the commission considers this to be a performance measure in its annual service plan.

OGC-LNG graphic

Regulator hands off LNG questions to EAO

The BC Environmental Assessment Office was created from the Environmental Assessment Act and is responsible for assessing the potential environmental, economic, social, heritage and health effects of oil and gas projects in BC.

The office offers the public opportunities to engage with proposed LNG projects through tools like submitting comments during public comment periods for specific applications, or attending public meetings, open houses and other public forums arranged by the office.

“The first public comment period is held during the pre-application phase,” says David Karn, Ministry of Environment communications officer.  “The first public comment period ensures that relevant public concerns are identified early, so that they may be considered in the environmental assessment process.”

Conservation groups help public through confusing process

However, organizations like SkeenaWild Conservation Trust, Douglas Channel Watch and the Northwest Fish and Wildlife Association recognize the public needs a hand navigating a sometimes complicated process. They help gather and formally submit public comments to the EAO on behalf of concerned residents with LNG development in their areas.

The Northwest Fish and Wildlife Association participated in the public comment process of the proposed Coastal GasLink Pipeline Project from Dawson Creek to Kitimat, BC, representing its membership’s concerns.

In its submission, the group called for the “creation of a Fish, Wildlife, and Habitat Legary Fund.”

“Too often we see companies come into communities, extract resources and shut down when the resource is depleted or economic conditions are not favorable,” it noted. “In its place, left behind are the negative implications to fish, wildlife, and the land and water with no compensation or funding to correct the damage done.”

Karn says the EAO will take any information submitted during a public comment period, including submissions from concerned organizations and project proponents, as it begins to evaluate additional historic or baseline information and studies before a project is able to receive its environmental assessment certificate.

EAO unsuited to address public’s LNG concerns

In order for stakeholder concerns to get passed along the environmental assessment chain of command, individuals must feel empowered to voice their opinions and know where they can be heard, say local environmental groups.

“People have good reason to be concerned and speak out, and I think government has an obligation both to listen to people’s concerns and deal with them – and [the OGC] is essentially deferring all of that to the environmental assessment process, but I don’t think that’s efficient,” says Greg Knox, executive director of SkeenaWild Conservation Trust.

[quote]It’s so complicated and the timelines are so short, that I don’t think the environmental assessment processes can properly take in people’s concerns and deal with them. A lot of people don’t even know how to participate in those processes in a meaningful way.[/quote]

Public fears salmon impacts from Lelu Island plant

SkeenaWild Conservation Trust is entering the environmental assessment process over the proposed Pacific Northwest LNG project on Lelu Island, at the port of Prince Rupert, because of the volume of calls they have received over the last few months from concerned residents who don’t know where to take their worries about the environmental and health implications of this LNG project. Knox dovetails fears about future LNG issues with pre-existing concerns about other heavy industrial operations in the Skeena Estuary – critical habitat for Canada’s second biggest wild salmon run.

Yet another LNG plant proposed for BC: Petronas' $9 Billion Prince Rupert plan
Petronas’ proposed Prince Rupert LNG plant on Lelu Island

“I had a fellow from Prince Rupert call and ask me if I was aware that a coal facility there was dumping some coal into the ocean right at the facility. I said that I wasn’t aware and that we would need information and proof of that – and that was just his most recent concern,” says Knox.

“He was also stressed about the dredging from the LNG facilities because not only would they be impacting salmon habitat, but they would be dredging up dioxins, purines and toxins from the old pulp mill site which release toxins into the estuary and it’s sitting in the sediments, so all those toxins would now likely be released from the dredging activity into the environment again.”

Environmental leaders like Knox say the BC government has an obligation to deal with stakeholder concerns, and stakeholders should have every opportunity to share their issues with government.

Closing the door on public participation

By the BC Oil and Gas Commission deferring these concerns to the EAO, many worry the regulator is closing its doors to residents having a voice in the province’s LNG development.

Only answering 75% of stakeholder concerns seems like a low target when the province is striving to create a dialogue between industry operators, residents and First Nations.  If the OGC was committed to addressing 100% of concerns, while also working alongside the EAO in a meaningful way, it would likely instill a higher degree of public confidence in the government’s LNG process.

NWT developing regulatory model for oil fracking in advance of devolution

BC Oil and Gas Commission abandons orphan wells

Clean LNG would be powered by lots of dirty fracking
Fracking operations in BC’s Montney Shale (Photo: Damien Gillis)

Despite admitting there is an increasing trend of inactive well sites awaiting reclamation, the BC Oil and Gas Commission has slashed its budget for its orphan site reclamation fund from $4.83 million in 2013 to just $1 million in 2014.

According to the Orphan Well Association, “an orphan is a well, pipeline, facility or associated site which has been investigated and confirmed as not having any legally responsible or financially able party to deal with its abandonment and reclamation.”

Earlier this year, the BC Ministry of Finance announced the 2014 Budget, focused on LNG development.  According to the budget, the Liberals plan to spend $29 million over the next three years on LNG development alone.  The National Energy Board also approved seven LNG export applications for BC, touted as the basis for a $100 billion Prosperity Fund that will wipe out the province’s debt by 2028.

In order to increase LNG development, the oil and gas industry will have to ramp up drilling, fracking and the number of LNG plants along the coast.

This push to expand LNG resources will create more orphan sites, but the government does not have the funds for reclamation because the Commission has scheduled to cut its cleanup expenditures. According to the BC Oil and Gas Commission’s 2014 Service Plan.

[quote]There is a trend of increasing inactive well sites awaiting reclamation as the industry matures. Delays in the implementation of restoration activities may increase the number of inactive sites and associated liabilities.[/quote]

Gas production in the province

In the northern BC regions of the Liard and Horn River Basins, and Montney shale field, the production from a natural gas well typically declines by 61 to 80-percent in just three years, according to geoscientist, David Hughes’ research. By that point, the well is all but played out, requiring far more drilling to keep up with production demands.

(Photo: Watershed Sentinel)

With the limited lifespan of these wells and the demand the LNG industry will place on fracking in BC, Hughes estimates industry will need to drill a staggering 50,000 new wells by 2040 – twice the total number in the 60 year history of the province’s natural gas industry.

That means the number of wells left behind will sharply increase. For example, the Horn River Basin gas well has a depletion rate of 80-percent in the first three years.

With a budget of $1 million until 2017, the BC Oil and Gas Commission will be unable to keep up with the demand for new sites as industry continues drilling, unable to account for the vast number of well pads reaching orphan stage, leaving more orphan well sites than they are able to responsibly reclaim.

Government and industry are driving a massive experiment in fracking and LNG development without being sure of the consequences for this scale of development.

For instance, in October the BC Ministry of Environment funded the $650,000 Kitimat Airshed Impact Assessment Project to measure the cumulative effects of existing and proposed industrial air emissions in the Kitimat Valley airshed.  The SkeenaWild Conservation Trust accessed this research in their November 2013 “Air Advisory” report, concluding, “this research is being carried out under tight timelines and with a limited budget… raises concerns about whether current research can provide a comprehensive understanding of potential impacts on which to base sound decisions.”

The Kitimat airshed blockage from the current Rio Tinto Alcan aluminum smelter plant’s carbon dioxide emissions has demonstrated the link between human health problems and industrial air emissions in the area.

“It’s a new era and it needs to be spoken about differently than any other time you’ve done gas before,” says Eoin Madden, climate campaigner with the Wilderness Committee.

[quote] I had one call from Fort Nelson First Nation which described it as carpet-bombing. It’s taking wilderness and carpet-bombing it like you would have seen back in Vietnam. It’s that destructive.[/quote]

The concern is that shale gas and LNG are a very different animal from the historical conventional industry with which the province is so familiar.

“When folks hear LNG they don’t realize the danger and that we’re talking about a completely different product from what we’ve traditionally had in BC,” says Madden. “It’s the product that forces us to swap our fresh water for gas and it’s the product that forces us to industrialize enormous amounts of wilderness.”

The unknown consequences of orphan sites

Hydrologist, Dr. Gilles Wendling, presented the unknowns about groundwater in the Yukon in January to the Yukon legislative committee.

“We are extremely ignorant about groundwater,” said Wendling.

[quote]We don’t know where our aquifers are. Even shallow aquifers, we don’t know where they are, we don’t know how big they are, we don’t know how deep they are. We don’t know the water table elevation, we don’t even know in which direction the groundwater moves, we don’t know, we haven’t collected the information.[/quote]

The unknown dangers with old well sites come from the toxic water reserves created during hydraulic fracturing. Not all old well sites become orphan wells. The majority of them are injected with fracking fluid flowback that’s been mixed with toxic additives, such as ethylene glycol, methanol, hydrochloric acid, formaldehyde, mercury, uranium, and lead.  The toxic flowback is then injected deep underground into old oil wells that haven’t become orphan sites.  These types of wells that use this technique of deep oilfield injection are known as disposal wells.  Disposal wells are old wells which use the drilling hole to dispose the leftover fluid from hydraulic fracking.  These disposal wells are then sealed with concrete to prevent open exposure.

Toxic flowback fluid from hydraulic fracking (Photo: Upstream Pumping Solutions).
Toxic flowback fluid from hydraulic fracking (Photo: Upstream Pumping Solutions).

But wastewater-injected wells contain structural risks says Wendling.  Active wells, disposal wells and orphan wells are all subject to native conditions, such as mini earthquakes, that create micro-fractures in the cement seals and corrosion in the casing of the well hole where leaks can happen a year to a decade as the structural integrity of the well degrades.

Well integrity is how wells are sealed and how a well’s sealing capacity will be modified with time.

“Once a hole is drilled in the ground, this hole is drilled forever,” says Wendling.

[quote]This hole goes through various zones which are under different pressures and which contain different types of fluids like gases, or liquids or a mix of the two. Once you have a hole that reaches through various zones and it’s properly sealed then it doesn’t act as a pathway, but with time and depending on induced anomalies, like mini-earthquakes, that cause fracturation – how is this going to effect the integrity of the well, how is it going to create micro-fractures along the well, how is it going to crack the cement seal along the well after one year, five years, ten years, 100 years, how is this going to change with time?[/quote]

If these disposal wells leak after deep oilfield injection, there is potential for our groundwater sources, that feed lakes and rivers, to become contaminated by these hydraulic fracturing chemicals because they can undergo pressure changes in the injection site that acts like a pathway for the mixing of deep and shallow water systems once the well’s integrity is jeopardized.   There is a lot of research being conducted right now to grasp the risks associated with creating and connecting non-native pathways underground through drilling, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions about the dangers of disposal wells and orphan well sites, says Wendling.

Boom and bust economy

Hardy Friedrich, manager of communications for the Oil and Gas Commission in Fort St. John was given the opportunity to comment on the Commission’s plan for orphan well site reclamation but declined to comment in a phone interview.

“We shouldn’t get dragged into conversations about how much money should be spent reclaiming well sites,” says Madden.  “Should the BC government spend money on that, or should Encana, or Talisman, or Apache, whoever made the mess? The way we’re thinking about it is endemic of how much ownership over our politics the oil and gas industry has.”

According to Madden, the dependence on the public to clean up after the energy industry reflects a fundamental problem in Canada’s fossil fuel economy.

[quote]The rules should state if you open a gas well, you’re responsible for remediation.[/quote]

However, that is not the case in BC. Taxpayer money is budgeted by the BC Oil and Gas Commission to reclaim orphan well sites so oil companies can move onto the next drilling project, but this allotted budget for environmental remediation is not enough to keep up with the demand for oil and gas.

In June 2013, Natural Resources Canada mandated that pipeline companies have at least $1 billion of cleanup funds available to deal with incidents.  If the government of Canada is willing to make the polluter pay in the event of a pipeline spill, why doesn’t the government hold oil companies accountable for reclaiming their old well sites as well?

Alternative forms of energy for a sustainable economy and jobs

“The infrastructure I would advocate for right now is an infrastructure that shifts how we think about energy and how we create energy jobs,” says Madden.

[quote]You’ve got geothermal potential, wind, solar power, different ways you can make energy. The question mark is over whether we should even have an export energy market?[/quote]

With the current plan for LNG development there is not enough money in the budget to responsibly account for the necessary cleanup associated with LNG and shale gas development. Without this in place, the BC government risks running their fresh water supplies into the ground, along with their ability to deal with climate change.

“If you’re responsible on the environment, you’re going to create more jobs, that’s the truth,” says Madden.

According to Madden and other critics of LNG development, the government risks alienating public support for its LNG vision if it passes the buck for industry cleanup to taxpayers.

Ajax Mine video featuring TRU dean unearths conflict

Ajax Mine video featuring TRU dean unearths conflict

Lindsay Langill, dean of trades and technology at Thompson Rivers University (Photo: Ajax Project Youtube).
TRU’s dean of trades and technology is featured in an Ajax mine video (Youtube: Ajax Project )

The latest chapter in the controversial Ajax mine proposal planned for the edge of Kamloops, BC was released as a sleek corporate video titled “The Conversation” by mining company, KGHM International. “The Conversation” featured Lindsay Langill, the dean of trades and technology at Thompson Rivers University (TRU), where he publicly expressed his support for the Ajax mine project.

After the video was released earlier this month, TRU received many complaints about Langill’s statement in the video.   Discussing the benefits Ajax would provide for his trades students, Langill said :

[quote]If we step back and look at what can be gained by a project such as Ajax, I think that there are many, many opportunities that open themselves up. So we can tell our students, take your training with us, stay in Kamloops, British Columbia and make a difference within the community.[/quote]

The University’s Vice-President Advancement, Christopher Seguin, responded to the complaints about Langill’s appearance in third-party corporate marketing material, telling Kamloops this Week:

[quote]Participation of the school’s dean of trades and technology in a pro-Ajax mine video does not mean Thompson Rivers University is supporting the proposed project.[/quote]

The university may want to maintain a neutral stance on the Ajax mine proposal, but Langill voluntarily allowed himself to be identified as a TRU faculty member, which reflects upon the institution.

The video highlights the job openings Ajax mine would create, its care for the surrounding environment and its neighbourhood approach to the city of Kamloops residents.

Ajax Project – an open-pit copper-gold mine at the historic Ajax-Afton mine site that finished operation in 1997 – is being developed by KGHM International, a wholly-owned subsidiary of KGHM Polska Miedź S.A., a Polish company of which the Polish government owns 80 percent of its shares.

Earlier this month, KGHM announced a new target of March, 2015 for filing its formal application. The delay comes as concern over the environmental footprint of the mine that would be located on the border of Kamloops’ city limits prompted the company to modify its design.

Although this plan hasn’t been publicly unveiled by the company, external-affairs manager Yves Lacasse said the redesign will allow the mine’s infrastructure to move south, away from the city.

After barring users from embedding the video elsewhere, the company took down the original video earlier this week. It was then reposted yesterday.