Until very recently, the link between fracking and earthquakes was considered unproven. But today it was revealed that years ago BC Hydro and the commission in charge of regulating B.C.’s oil and gas industry were already discussing the danger of fracking-induced seismic activity near major hydroelectric projects in the province’s northeast.
This has implications for the Site C Dam, a fiercely contested megaproject in northeastern B.C. that is now in the early stages of construction. The debate over Site C can only really be understood by considering the full spectrum of energy resource development in the region.
The dam has the support of the B.C. Liberal government and recently got new building permits issued by the feds. But it faces opposition from local First Nations, farmers, and a diverse coalition concerned about the full environmental implications. There are fears that the power generated from the project will help fuel expansion of gas extraction in B.C. and the Alberta tar sands.
The dangers posed by industry-caused earthquakes provide another reason to link the issues of gas exploitation and Site C. New documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests by Ben Parfitt, resource policy analyst with the B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, reveal that B.C. Hydro officials have for years been concerned about damage from fracking for gas near other major dams in the northeast of the province.
“Senior BC Hydro officials have quietly feared for years that earthquakes triggered by natural gas industry fracking operations could damage its Peace River dams, putting hundreds if not thousands of people at risk should the dams fail,” writes Parfitt. “Yet the Crown corporation has said nothing publicly about its concerns, opting instead to negotiate behind the scenes with the provincial energy industry regulator, the BC Oil and Gas Commission.”
Parfitt argues that the correspondence between the Crown corporation and the regulatory body shows that more rigorous rules are needed to enforce “buffer zones” where fracking is prohibited near dams.
Incomplete scientific review
BC Hydro responded with a press release stating that its dams are built to withstand earthquakes more powerful than the worst tremors known to have been triggered by fracking, and that the concerns expressed internally related to maintenance costs from seepage and other damage, rather than a catastrophe such as a dam failure.
This is cold comfort. The concerns raised years ago by BC Hydro should have already been part of the public debate around the expansion of oil and gas extraction in this province. Opposition to fracking is widespread as it is, with a poll by Insights West from earlier this year showing 61 per cent of British Columbians against and only 23 per cent in favour of the practice. If the concerns about earthquakes and dams had been public knowledge, no doubt the numbers would be even more overwhelming.
George Heyman, the BC NDP’s environment critic, told Ricochet that BC Hydro’s concerns about fracking and earthquakes point to the necessity of his party’s call for a full, independent science-based review of the industrial practice.
“The B.C. government refuses to carry out a full scientific review,” Heyman said. “On top of a recent federal government that all but dismissed science, many British Columbians simply don’t have confidence in the review process.”
Asked how this new information should inform the debate on the Site C Dam, Heyman told Ricochet “there are better alternatives” than the megaproject. He added that if the NDP win next year’s provincial election, the government will subject Site C to a full scientific assessment by the BC Utilities Commission, regardless of what stage of construction it has reached. The governing BC Liberals have refused to subject Site C to review by the BCUC.
More debate needed
The necessary public debate over fracking in B.C. has been constrained by a largely pro-industry corporate media and a political opposition wary of being framed by the mainstream press and the government as “anti-development.”
Internationally, the connection between hydraulic fracturing and earthquakes was long downplayed and even denied by boosters of the industry. But studies have proven the linkage.
In recent years, jurisdictions around the world, including Quebec and New York State, have effectively banned or severely curtailed fracking. This year, activists across the United States are pushing local ballot initiatives to limit the practice.
Isn’t it time we at least had a fully informed and vigorous public discussion here in British Columbia? Even without access to full information about the dangers involved, a clear majority are opposed. There’s a strong case to be made for a straight-up ban on fracking in B.C. With a provincial election less than a year away, let the debate begin.