Group wants new agency to oversee oil and gas industry in British Columbia

VANCOUVER — British Columbia's Oil and Gas Commission isn't taking action that would protect the environment in the public interest, favouring instead the companies it is intended to police, says a new report.

Author Ben Parfitt accused the Crown corporation of serving the interests of the industry and a provincial government that promotes fossil fuel development ahead of the public interest.

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"What we have seen over the more recent years is that the commission's job to ensure environmental protection and to ensure public health and safety and to ensure companies are following the rules, there is abundant evidence that the commission is failing to do that," he said in an interview.

A spokesperson from the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources said in an email that its staff are in the process of reviewing the report.

"We have a strong provincial regulator in the BC Oil and Gas Commission and it, along with government, is always looking for continuous improvement for our regulatory framework," the email statement said.

The commission didn't respond to requests for comment on the report released Wednesday by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The centre is a think tank that does not take corporate donations. It describes itself as a source of progressive policy ideas and says its values are rooted in social justice and environmental sustainability.

The report says that before the commission's genesis, companies had to apply to numerous provincial ministries and branches to obtain authorizations before drilling for natural gas could begin.

These included the Forests Ministry, which issued permits to log forests for roads, pipeline corridors, well pads and more; the Ministry of Lands, which approved the occupation of Crown or public lands; the Heritage Conservation Branch, which issued archaeological permits; and the Environment Ministry, which handed out water permits and approvals governing industrial activities in sensitive fish and wildlife habitats, it says.

Parfitt said after the commission was established in 1998 the review and approval of industry development applications accelerated.

"The very first reports showed the Oil and Gas Commission was speeding up the approval process but not the compliance process," he said. "The report looks at three significant indications of where the agency has failed to be tough on the companies that it regulates."

The report highlights examples of when the commission didn't penalize companies to the fullest extent for the construction of unlicensed dams, leaking gas wells, contaminating water and violations of rules to protect endangered species, Parfitt said.

Those examples show there is an extreme reluctance on the part of the industry regulator to hold the companies it regulates to account, he said.

There will be a significant ramp up in oil and gas industry activities once liquefied natural gas plants are built on the B.C. coast, which will lead to an increase in drilling and fracking, Parfitt said.

He said there's been a reluctance on the part of one provincial government after another to deal with the Oil and Gas Commission.

"A different set of rules" seems to apply for the fossil fuel industry, Parfitt said.

To ensure compliance, the report recommends the creation of an arm's length agency to oversee regulatory compliance and enforcement and that a single water authority be reinstated to regulate all water users in the province.

"The amount of drilling and fracking that is going to occur to supply those plants is going to result in a huge, huge increase in gas industry activities in the northeast of the province," Parfitt said.

"So, this is a time that we need to get things right in terms of regulating the industry."

The report also says the provincial government should remove the commission's powers to change regulations and compel it to release all information that is in the public interest.

"At the end of the day, we still have to confront the fact that we still have a climate crisis in the world right now and we need to be finding a way to rapidly ramp down fossil fuel production in B.C. and around the world," Parfitt said.

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