Hydraulic fracturing and water management were the key items on the agenda during a series of information sessions held by the BC Oil and Gas Commission (OGC) during the week of October 22-26.
“They provided a good dialogue between the attendees and the Commission,” OGC spokesperson Hardy Friedrich said of the sessions.
The OGC visited mayor and council in Chetwynd and Taylor in addition to holding public sessions in Dawson Creek, Fort St. John and Tumbler Ridge.
“The point was to provide the public access to our experts in the fields of water use and hydraulic fracturing,” Friedrich added. “And there was some good dialogue there.”
During the session in Fort St. John, Friedrich explained that the OGC decided to conduct the information sessions with a focus on hydraulic fracturing and water because those are the subjects that stakeholders ask about most frequently.
Consequently, they felt a need to provide the facts.
Chief engineer Mayka Kennedy was the first to take the podium, immediately addressing often discussed concerns about potential groundwater contamination due to hydraulic fracturing.
Kennedy noted that potable groundwater aquifers in the Fort St. John area tend to be about 100 to 150 metres below the surface of the earth, while the surface casing on natural gas wells go as deep as a minimum of 600 metres.
The shale gas is as deep as two to three kilometers underground.
Despite those reassurances, some of the handful of attendees still asked questions about the possibility of water contamination due to hydraulic fracturing and the need for a monitoring system to test groundwater for pollutants associated with the practice.
“The potential for material to leak out of [a well casing] is very low,” said OGC hydrologist Allan Chapman.
One attendee raised the issue of groundwater aquifer mapping, suggesting that that work should have been completed before any natural gas drilling took place.
“That’s a foolish thing to do, to allow them to drill without a map,” said that individual.
Chapman responded by remarking that aquifer mapping in the Fort St. John area is actually fairly good, but admitted that there is much work to be done in the Horn River Basin.
Chapman’s presentation on water management was done in the context of a summer where the Peace Region experienced a near record drought and the OGC had to suspend oil and gas industry water withdrawals from numerous watercourses throughout the northeast corner of the province.
“Pretty extreme drought here this year,” said Chapman, noting that the area received only 10 millimetres of precipitation during the summer months, a far cry from the usual 250 millimetres or more.
That is a serious concern when only about 20 per cent of the approximately 500 millimetres of annual precipitation actually becomes stream flow.
“I suspect the suspension will stay on over the winter,” he added.
The OGC issued an update on November 14 stating that the suspension of water withdrawals had been lifted for all rivers and lakes in the Montney play, but the suspensions would stay in effect for the Horn River Basin and Cordova Embayment, with the exceptions of the Sikanni Chief, Muskwa, Fort Nelson and Fontas rivers.
Water can also be withdrawn from the Liard River and its tributaries excluding the Capot Blanc River.
“I think we’re actually leading in a lot of areas,” Chapman said of the work being done by the OGC.
“And I think this is one area.”
Attendees still raised concerns about water management, however, particularly around what they see as unregulated and unreported groundwater withdrawals from water wells on their properties, a sticky situation considering the absence of a groundwater licensing system in B.C.
Groundwater is expected to be part of the long-awaited modernized Water Act.
“They have to report the water use. It is a regulation,” said Chapman.
Judging by those sorts of conversations that took place during the information sessions, one lesson that could be taken from the events is that there is a disconnect between the OGC and the public.
The public appears to expect the OGC and its staff of 18 compliance offers to know when a misdeed has been committed, while the OGC often relied on tips from the public to enforce their regulations, which they don’t always receive.
“One of the main points that we were trying to get out there was that we have a 24/7 number that people can call if they notice anything that they don’t think that’s right that’s happening out there in the field,” said Friedrich.
“It’s important for people to realize that there’s a number they can call if they don’t think something’s right. And we’re committed to responding to every complaint or tip that we get.”