Hundreds of gas wells could be leaking methane and potentially contaminating groundwater, according to a B.C. Oil and Gas Commission (OGC) report that has been kept secret from the public and politicians for four years.
That suppression of information is giving ammunition to calls for a full public inquiry into fracking operations in the province.
“It is deeply troubling that B.C.’s energy regulator kept this report secret. Why did it not tell the public? Why, as the OGC now alleges, did it also not share the report with cabinet ministers who have responsibility for the energy industry?” Ben Parfitt, a resource policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, told DeSmog Canada.
“We need answers and a full public inquiry is the best way to get them,” he said.
The staff report from December 2013 was finally posted to the commission’s website last month, after a copy was leaked to an investigative reporter, and that points to troubling questions about the motivation in not releasing such sensitive information, Parfitt said.
Phil Rygg, the Oil and Gas Commission’s director of public and corporate relations, said in an emailed response to questions from DeSmog Canada that the Gas Migration Report was an internal report to allow the commission to “better understand the issue of gas migration, plan next steps for data gathering and potential mitigation effects.”
Report Identified 900 Potential Leaking Gas Wells
The 2013 report documents 47 cases of gas migration — leaking methane — and speculates that, in the one zone studied, in northeast B.C., there could be 900 leaking wells. But, the commission does not have an “accurate understanding” of the total number of methane-leaking wells or good research on the effect of gas migration on aquifers, it says.
None of the wells identified were in close proximity to domestic water wells and there was no information that the confirmed leaking wells had affected domestic groundwater, the report says.
But risks to health, safety and the environment are acknowledged.
“Although methane is non-toxic, if methane is introduced into a drinking water system, there is potential to create an explosive atmosphere in confined spaces. Additionally, gas migration is a source of GHG emissions,” it says.
The report was written shortly before Rich Coleman, then BC Liberal minister of natural gas development, said that there was no evidence of groundwater contamination after decades of fracking.
“The reality is we’ve been doing this for over 50 years, we’ve never had a contamination from a drill,” Coleman said in response to questions about a scientific report saying fracking could contaminate surface and groundwater.
At that time, the province was aggressively pursuing liquified natural gas (LNG) development, so the information in the commission’s report was politically sensitive, said Parfitt, adding that that makes it even more puzzling that the information was not shared with politicians.
“We have a politician saying there is no evidence of groundwater contamination, but the head of the the commission has different information,” Parfitt said.
Cozy Ties Between Oil and Gas Industry and Regulator
It is not possible to know why the information was suppressed, Parfitt said.
“But a criticism that has been made of the Oil and Gas Commission is that there appears to be a troublingly close relationship between the regulator and industry clients that it regulates. I think this is something that should be looked at very closely by the provincial government,” he said.
It would be more acceptable for permit issuance to be separated from the compliance and enforcement function of the commission, Parfitt said, suggesting that enforcement should be handed to another organization such as the Conservation Officer Service.
Auditor General Carol Bellringer concluded after the Mount Polley tailings dam collapse that there was an inherent conflict of interest between promotion of the mining industry and ensuring compliance with environmental standards; Parfitt believes Bellringer would be likely to come to the same conclusion if she looked at the oil and gas sector.
Rygg said that since 2013 the commission has bought new equipment to better detect leaks, tightened regulations to ensure the commission is immediately notified of incidents and is conducting additional field investigations.
In addition, he said the commission has formed a working group with industry to improve drilling and cementing practices, is involved in several research projects, and recently conducted a helicopter survey of abandoned wells to better identify methane emissions.
“As of June 2017, gas migration has been reported to be associated with 144 wells in northeast B.C.,” he said.
It is the second time this year that serious questions have been raised about the OGC’s lax regulation of fossil fuel companies, Parfitt said.
Earlier this year, a CCPA investigation found the gas industry had built about 50 unlicensed dams to trap water used in fracking operations.
Also, this year, the David Suzuki Foundation published research showing that 118,000 tonnes of “fugitive” methane was being released into the atmosphere annually at B.C. gas wells and other energy sector sites. The Suzuki Foundation found that release of that methane — which as a greenhouse gas is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide — is equivalent to adding two million vehicles to the road.
The CCPA and Suzuki Foundation are among 17 organizations that have called for a public inquiry into fracking, instead of the government’s promised scientific panel review.
“Only with a full, adequately funded, independent public inquiry, where witnesses testify under oath, do we believe British Columbians will get the information they need,” Parfitt said.
“That includes information on why the OGC has failed to effectively regulate the industry and protect the public interest, and why it has withheld key information from the public.”