Critics are concerned that the B.C. government is allowing a natural gas company to draw water from a northern BC Hydro reservoir to use in a controversial technique called fracking.
The government has approved a long-term water licence for Talisman Energy to draw water from Williston Lake, a BC Hydro reservoir in northern B.C. for the next 20 years.
The water will be piped out of the Williston Reservoir, mixed with sand and chemicals and used to fracture shale rock underground to release natural gas.
What is fracking?
- Hydraulic fracturing, or "hydro-fracking," is a form of natural gas extraction in which a pressurized mix of water and other substances is injected into shale rock formations or coal beds to release trapped natural gas.
- A fluid mixture of water and chemicals is injected under high pressure deep underground, creating or widening fissures in the rock.
- Then, sand or another solid, often ceramic beads, is pumped in to keep the fissures propped open so that methane gas can escape from pores and fractures in the rock.
It's one of several major water requests the government is considering from companies engaged in the process called fracking.
But critics are concerned the controversial process has been approved without serious public consultation. They say the process requires too much water and leaves toxic waste water behind.
The government is defending the practice saying it has a safe record in B.C.
"We have not received any reports or instances of aquifer contamination resulting from any fracking operations in British Columbia," said a statement issued by the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.
"Our technical assessment indicates that the reservoir’s water levels can support the extraction," said the statement.
Fracking draws critics back east
The practice of fracking has sparked widespread protests by environmentalists in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and was recently suspended in Quebec pending a detailed environmental review
Critics in B.C. are also concerned.
"We should not be giving away the public water resource," says Independent MLA Bob Simpson
Talisman calls it "environmentally sustainable," but Simpson disagrees.
What are the environmental concerns?
- The process uses large amounts of fresh or potable water.
- Space is needed to store the waste water safely; sometimes, this involves clearing trees or disrupting habitats.
- The waste water must be treated at facilities that critics say are not always equipped to remove the contaminants particular to hydro-fracking.
- The fear is that the chemicals used and released during fracking contaminate drinking- and groundwater — either during the process itself or through the waste water that is recycled and used afterward. The substances released along with the natural gas can continue leaking from the well for decades after the extraction process.
- Some of the methane gas being extracted during fracking escapes or is vented at the well head during the process and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.
- Some people living near fracking wells have complained of noxious fumes that they say cause headaches, nausea and other symptoms and that they attribute to some of the substances released during fracking, such as benzene and toluene.
- Researchers say that shale gas extraction through fracking causes enough emissions to give it a bigger greenhouse gas footprint than conventional gas or oil.
"To use fresh water for hydraulic fracturing — pour toxins into that water...put it into permanent storage — taking it out of the water's cycle. How's that sustainable?"
Ben Parfitt of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives says he hasn't seen a water licence this big before.
He says the government promised public debate about water and fracking but nothing significant ever happened.
"I'm not aware of any....[robust] consultation taking place. I don't think the public has any idea," he said.
Minister of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations Steve Thomson declined repeated requests for an interview, but staff at the ministry issued a statement saying the licence met all the requirements before it was approved.
"Prior to approval, a technical assessment of water availability was done, as well as several meetings with First Nations in March and April and correspondence with stakeholders and local and federal governments," said the statement.
No public consultation was required for the licence because it will draw a maximum of 3.65 million cubic metres of water per year, well below the 10 million cubic metres per year required to trigger an environmental assessment, according to the statement.
B.C. is already providing gas companies with 78 million cubic metres a year of water from rivers, creeks and streams on short-term permits — the equivalent of drawing down 31,000 Olympic swimming pools each year.
Parfitt says the natural gas industry's future demands for water exceeds the amount of water all of Vancouver uses.
The Williston Reservoir is B.C.'s biggest freshwater body, and in the top 10 reservoirs worldwide. It's located across a vast swath of northern B.C., stretching from approximately MacKenzie to Tsay Kay Dene to Hudson's Hope.
The water for the Talisman project is to be drawn from the Farrell Creek near Hudson's Hope, through a pipeline near Beryl Prairie Road.