B.C. subsidizes energy drilling on caribou habitat it promised to protect, study says

British Columbia is subsidizing oil and gas well drilling on the same land it has promised to protect for caribou, new research has found.

Thousands of wells in caribou habitat run by firms that got provincial funding in past 3 years

In February 2020, B.C. signed a so-called Section 11 conservation agreement with Ottawa that promised 'commitments related to habitat protection and restoration.' However, a new study shows the province has provided subsidies to companies drilling for fossil fuels in caribou habitat. (Angus Morrison)

British Columbia is subsidizing oil and gas well drilling on the same land it has promised to protect for caribou, new research has found.

"The B.C. government has made a lot of commitments to caribou habitat restoration and it's not really working," said Adriana DiSilvestro, a University of British Columbia graduate student and lead author on the project, which is published on the website of ARCGis Online, a cloud-based mapping software.

"The fact there are oil and gas operations being subsidized in areas the federal government has deemed critical habitat is a piece to this puzzle."

The researchers say the study was reviewed by several experts, including independent economist Robyn Allan, and they plan to submit their findings to a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

DiSilvestro and her colleagues first identified wells in northeastern B.C. and located them on federal maps showing critical habitat for woodland caribou, a threatened species for which the province has promised to develop a recovery plan.

The team then used government and industry data to determine which of those wells had benefited from a government subsidy. Those subsidies include programs such as the Deep Well Royalty Program, which covers part of the drilling and completion costs for these wells, up to $2.8 million per well, and can be used to reduce royalties by half.

DiSilvestro said the research shows 3,114 active oil and gas wells within critical caribou habitat in B.C. Of these, 1,678 wells — just over half — are run by companies that have received assistance from one of three provincial subsidy programs over the past three years.

Previous research has identified industrial use as a major driver of caribou habitat loss and herd declines. Energy and logging both damage the old-growth forest caribou rely on and create easy pathways for predators to reach formerly safe hideouts.

"We conclude that public funds are subsidizing caribou extinction," the report says.

Of B.C.'s 53 caribou herds, 14 are stable or increasing, while 25 herds are either shrinking or have disappeared. No data exists for the rest. Some First Nations have been forced to step in with extreme conservation measures, such as penning up pregnant caribou cows until they can safely calve.

In February 2020, B.C. signed a so-called Section 11 conservation agreement with Ottawa that promised "commitments related to habitat protection and restoration." That agreement, under the Species At Risk Act, was seen as an alternative to the federal government stepping in to impose protections under an emergency protection order.

A number of mountain caribou herds are on the brink of local extinction in two parts of B.C. (Wildlife Infometrics)

In an emailed response, Meghan McRae, of the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation, pointed to a series of programs the province funds to remediate old wells, including $27 million from industry to clean up wells for which no owner currently exists.

B.C. government trying to identify 'acceptable outcomes' for caribou

"The province is working with First Nations, local governments, industry and stakeholders to identify acceptable outcomes for caribou recovery, as well as continued resource development in B.C.," she said.

"We continue to work with the federal government on our efforts of conservation and recovery of caribou herds."

DiSilvestro said the findings suggest that conservation agreements made with one hand be undercut by programs from the other.

"We can say pretty clearly that the [Section 11] agreement isn't working. The continued subsidization of industry in these areas is a major factor in [caribou] decline."

Alberta and Saskatchewan also have Section 11 agreements with Ottawa, promising caribou recovery efforts and habitat protection.

The International Institute for Sustainable Development and Environmental Defence, one of several groups studying fossil fuel subsidies that participated in discussions with the researchers, has calculated that Alberta spent about $1.6 billion a year in fossil fuel subsidies between 2016 and 2019. Its work does not detail where that money has been spent.

It doesn't have equivalent data for Saskatchewan.

With files from CBC News

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