A patchwork of roads, ditches and unauthorized dams are scarring First Nations territories in north east B.C. while water sources are being jeopardised by natural gas companies using hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of water for fracking, according to a study conducted for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
A sharp increase in fracking operations is underway in B.C. but First Nations have little say in decisions about how the companies operate on their traditional lands, finds the study, written by Ben Parfitt, CCPA resource policy analyst.
“Today, in the more remote reaches of northeast B.C., more water is used in fracking operations than anywhere else on earth — and substantial increases in water use will have to occur in the event a liquefied natural gas industry emerges in B.C.,” the paper states.
Fracking is the practice of pressure-pumping immense quantities of water, deep below the earth’s surface, to fracture rock in order to release trapped gas.
“It is easy to see how all that water use, which ultimately results in the water becoming heavily contaminated, poses increased risks both to surface waters and below ground or groundwater sources such as aquifers,” says the study, which points out that more water is used in B.C. fracking operations than anywhere else in the world.
A previous CCPA study found that, between 2012 and 2014, water use at fracked gas wells in the Montney and Horn River Basins, the region’s two major basins, climbed by about 50 per cent.
“Natural gas drilling and fracking operations have devastated local First Nations, steadily eroding their ability to hunt, fish, trap and carry out other traditional practices, which are supposed to be protected by Treaty 8,” said Parfitt, who last month revealed that dozens of unauthorized dams had been built in the same area to trap water used in fracking operations.
Parfitt found that two of the dams built by Progress Energy, a subsidiary of Malaysian-owned Petronas, were so large they should have been reviewed and approved by the province’s Environmental Assessment Office.
In addition to the effect on First Nations lands, there is concern that fracking operations are known to trigger earthquakes and there is no guarantee that the dams are safe.
The B.C. Oil and Gas Commission found that, in 2015, fracking by Progress Energy, north of Fort St. John, triggered a 4.6 –magnitude earthquake.
Now, with growing concerns about the amount of water being used by the industry, it is time First Nations were given more control over what happens on their land, Parfitt said.
Although First Nations receive advanced notice of fossil fuel industry development planned for their territories, they have little influence on the timing, rate or location of company operations and there is growing frustration over the inability to look at cumulative impacts or what constitutes a reasonable amount of industrial activity within a watershed, according to the study.
Some First Nations are resorting to legal action and the Fort Nelson First Nation, a Treaty 8 signatory, succeeded in having a water licence within its’ territory cancelled while the Blueberry River First Nations is suing the provincial government for cumulative damages to its territory from multiple industrial developments.
Three-quarters of Blueberry River territory is just 250 metres away from a variety of industrial disturbances, according to members. The potentially precedent-setting case is likely to be heard next year.
The new NDP government in B.C., propped up by support from the Green party, has not made any promises regarding fracking in B.C. although a joint agreement signed by both parties vowed to honour the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Green party Leader Andrew Weaver has previously called for a moratorium on fracking in B.C. until the risks of the process can be more fully understood.
Parfitt said that, if B.C. is going to respect the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, there must be changes.
“To start, we need to end the current death-by-a-thousand-cuts approach, where First Nations are simply asked to respond to one proposed industrial development after another, and, instead, place First Nations firmly in the driver’s seat when it comes to guiding activities in local watersheds,” Parfitt said.
Meaningful consultation needs to take place well before activities occur, he said, noting that disturbance to the land for fracking operations ranges from logging to construction of wastewater containment ponds.
The report recommends that, instead of First Nations simply being asked to respond to government and industry referrals, the province should bring in new co-management regimes, with First Nations and government working together.
The system could be similar to that on Haida Gwaii, where the Haida Nation co-manages the Gwaii Haanas national park reserve and Haida heritage site with the federal government and co-manages forest resources on the north of the islands with the provincial government.
Other recommendations include:
- Setting maximum natural gas extraction limits on a watershed-by-watershed basis.
- Creating no-go, drill-free and frack-free zones, including protected areas where healthy, functioning ecosystems are maintained so that indigenous rights can be fully exercised.
- Charging more for industrial use of water, in hopes of encouraging conservation, and investing those funds in water studies and enhanced water protection.
- Requiring fossil fuel companies to detail exactly where they intend to operate over the long-term, so decisions on industry development and water withdrawals can be made in the context of cumulative regional impacts. The system would be similar to requirements that the logging industry give 20-year development plans detailing where they are proposing to build roads or log.
“There is an urgent need to embrace these recommendations — and more — in light of what First Nations contend with in the face of modern-day natural gas industry operations,” says the study.
“All natural resources, particularly water resources, are finite. They sustain lands and resources that First Nations have relied on since time immemorial. They must be managed with that in mind.”
Image: Caleb Behn, indigenous rights advocate, has fought for years to prevent the negative impacts of fracking on indigenous lands in B.C. Photo: Fractured Land