BC Oil & Gas Commission hires a hydrologist – about time!

BAD2010-logo.jpgToday – October 15th - is Blog Action Day 2010.  Bloggers around the world are writing about water. 

We’ve been asked to encourage you to sign the petition in support of UNICEF’s treaty on safe drinking water.  Please do: it’s an important cause.  But water problems are not limited to drinking water in developing nations.   We need to care for our water here in Canada, and in British Columbia. 

West Coast has written before about how use of water by the oil and gas industry in the Peace River region of BC has been mismanaged by the province’s Oil and Gas Commission.   As we highlighted last August, the Oil and Gas Commission (OGC) has been unable to track water use by the oil and gas industry and largely ineffective in protecting the environment or other water users.  It is now clear from documents received under the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act (the FOI Records) that one of the reasons for this (although probably not the only one) was that the OGC hasn’t had the internal expertise to regulate water use.  Lesson #1 for government in regulating water use – make sure your staff know what they’re doing. 

On July 19th (just over a month before our blog post), they took an important first step in correcting this problem my hiring a hydrologist.  That hydrologist, Allan Chapman, writes:

I (Allan Chapman) joined the Oil and Gas Commission as Hydrologist on July 19, 2010.  I was previously the Head of the Ministry of Environment’s River Forecast Centre, and had responsibility while with MoE for flood and drought forecasting and information.  When I began with MoE on July 19, 2010, I brought significant specific awareness of the drought situation in the NorthEast to augment what the Commission already understood.

Immediately upon my beginning with the OGC, I was engaged in discussions with MoE HQ and Regional (Prince George) staff on the drought.

When I spoke to Chapman he confirmed that prior to his hire, the OGC had not had anyone on staff with hydrological training.  Let’s keep in mind that this is an agency that in the 2009 fiscal year approved 807 applications to use water, authorizing the extraction of 78,569,000 m3. 

That’s shocking, but Chapman characterized the OGC’s decision to hire a hydrologist as evidence that the agency recognized that it was caught off guard by the dramatic increase in industry demand for water brought about by hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking or fraccing), and needs internal expertise so that it can do better. 

Chapman’s hire couldn’t have been more timely.  By the time he started work, the Northeast of BC was in the middle of a drought.  On July 22nd, 3 days after he was hired, the OGC issued its first Information Bulletin to the industry about the drought, and Chapman was listed as the only contact person. 

The FOI records, which mostly originate with Chapman, indicate that the OGC had not previously grappled with how its Water Act approvals might address, or not address, drought conditions.  Chapman, in an email written just 2 days after he assumed his new role, questioned whether the OGC even had the legal power to rescind its many Water Act approvals.

In addition, Chapman realized that the OGC’s internal policies and practices did not deal well with the drought situation. 

Currently the OGC does not distinguish drought as a criteria for considering an application for short-term water use as “non-routine”.  I anticipate that applications will continue to be received over the remaining summer period, although regional staff have indicated that August is not a particularly active period for fraccing and use of larger quantities of water.  I have talked with the regional staff and manager who deal with the water approvals – they are aware of the low flow situation.  I have raised the topic of drought with respect to the routine vs. non-routine process for approvals, and we will discuss and follow-up. 

In my subsequent conversation with him, Chapman explained that the reference to routine vs. non-routine approvals actually relates to an OGC policy which was under development at the time, and is now undergoing significant further revisions as a result of the drought experience (and, perhaps, Chapman’s expertise).  However, when I asked about how approvals were previously handled, Chapman acknowledged that applications for water permits had been subject to “varying amounts of scrutiny.”  OGC staff in Fort St. John, who issue the approvals, did have guidance related to avoiding environmentally sensitive points of diversion, among other criteria, but these criteria did not apparently include considering information on the likelihood of a drought in the region. 

According to the FOI records, the OGC’s responses to the drought were taken largely in response to the Ministry of Environment’s evaluation of the risk of the drought.  Chapman writes about “following the lead” of the Ministry, while another staff talk of it being “prudent” to “match anything coming from the MoE.”  By the end of July, the OGC was aware that the Ministry of Environment was planning to upgrade the drought evaluation in the region from level 3 (very dry conditions) to level 4 (Extremely dry) (in actual fact the Ministry didn’t issue this upgrade until August 20th).  At level 4 the amount of water available is considered to be: “insufficient to meet socio-economic and ecosystem needs” and the government’s goal under its Drought Response Plan is “maximum reductions” in water use. 

There is little in the records provided to explain what occurred between July 30th and August 11th, when the suspension of industry water rights was ordered by the OGC (again with Chapman as the lead spokesperson).  In the records, Chapman indicated interest in finding out from the companies how water restrictions might affect them.  However, he has subsequently informed me that the OGC was aware of only one company actually using water in the area (Talisman), and that only 6 companies were actually contacted, all of whom stated that they were not using water from the affected watersheds. 

We do know that on August 9th staff from the OGC did have a conversation to give David Pryce, VP with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) a “heads up” about the upcoming order.  Pryce is quoted as having asked the following questions, which OGC staff said “we should attempt to answer today”:

  • Do we have a sense of the significance to both drilling and production programs?
  • Curious to know how senior in MOE is this decision being taken and has it been reviewed with MEMPR?
  • The note speaks to OGC helping industry identifying alternative sources?  What does that mean in real terms?
  • What is the plan to advise companies and when do you plan on sending this out publicly to companies?

Interesting questions.  However, no records were provided indicating whether or how the OGC answered these questions.  When I asked Chapman about it, he said that he was not aware of any reply to the questions from the OGC. 

Clearly, before August 10th when it issued its order, the OGC had decided that they did have the legal authority to suspend licences.  In fashioning a suspension order, they followed the Ministry of Environment’s lead in determining which watersheds to target. 

Since we wrote our post on the situation, the OGC has eased, and subsequently partially lifted, the water suspensions. 

The OGC's next steps

When I phoned Mr. Chapman to discuss the OGC’s water policies and the FOI Records, he was very frank, acknowledging many of the OGC’s past short-comings in regulating water extractions.  But he was also enthusiastic in assuring me that the OGC, starting with hiring him, is changing. 

Because of his past role in the Ministry of Environment, he continues to be in close contact with the Ministry, and he now represents the OGC on the Ministry’s Inter-Agency Drought working group. 

He’s also developing new policies and procedures for the OGC to use in making decisions under the Water Act, talking animatedly of “hydrological decision support tools” based on “watershed based hydrological criteria.”  He assured me that the OGC staff would be tracking water use more carefully in the future and would no longer be issuing Water Act approvals that did not specify where water should be taken from (some OGC approvals had allowed water extractions from any water body appearing on a government approved schedule). 

He even, when I asked him about West Coast’s position that OGC section 8 approvals that “rolled over” allowing companies to get new approvals year after year, agreed that they were illegal, although he suggested that the practice was not as widespread as I might think.   He said:

That’s why the OGC is working with the Ministry of Environment to get companies with longer term water needs to apply to the Ministry for licences.  I believe that they’ve received about 10, and they’ll get more …

This is not, of course, a final answer to the question of what to do about the huge need for water by oil and gas companies for fraccing, but it will at least ensure a level of scrutiny and public transparency that has been lacking in OGC approvals to date. 

The fact that the OGC has not had a hydrologist on staff until just this past July is shocking – and it explains a lot.  But they do deserve a nod for having hired one now. 

Will having Chapman on staff at the OGC transform the way that the industry’s water use is regulated?  Probably not.  Despite his apparent sincerity, West Coast continues to have serious concerns about environmental laws being administered and enforced by a government agency that receives its funding from that fees paid by the industry and who has a mandate focused on facilitating the development of the industry.  Water use for any other industries is regulated by the Ministry of the Environment, and that’s where it should reside for the oil and gas industry as well. 

That being said, having a hydrologist on staff can only improve the way that the OGC regulates water use by the industry.  We will be interested to see the details of the watershed-based approval approaches that Chapman is developing. 

Andrewblogphoto.jpgBy Andrew Gage

P.S. A big thank you to Allan Chapman for taking the time to talk to me.

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