A toxic practice, a poisonous relationship by Elizabeth James, September 7, 2011, North Shore News
“I am encouraged that, during the course of our audit, the Environmental Assessment Office introduced some key measures to address some of the noted deficiencies. . . . Government has accepted our six recommendations, and I look forward to receiving updates on their implementation through our follow-up process.”
John Doyle, B.C. Auditor General, July 2011
WHEN I discussed the importance of auditors general last month, and the following week warned that privatization of British Columbia’s fresh water supply was on the horizon, I could not have predicted how soon those stars would meet; but meet they did. We can only hope the optimism of B.C. Auditor General John Doyle, expressed in his July audit of the Environmental Assessment Office’s oversight of certified projects will prove to be well founded. We now know Doyle’s signature was barely dry on that report when the provincial government, on July 25, granted Talisman Energy Inc. – formerly BP Canada – a certificate allowing the company to divert up to 10,000 cubic metres of water per day from Williston Reservoir on the Peace River. Talisman will be using it to fracture rock underground – a process called fracking – to release deposits of natural gas. It’s a technique that has come under fire from regulators in the United States recently who say the chemicals used in the process can contaminate aquifers. Is this something we want on the Peace River? Little is known of the contract details, except that it is good for 20 years. Next in line for a similar certificate is Calgary-based Canbriam Energy Inc. How do the certificates fit with the AG’s report?
As Doyle described, “Major projects, such as mines or power plants, must be considered for an environmental assessment prior to their development.” If the EAO sends a favourable report to the environment minister, the province then issues a certificate for the project to proceed. In making his six recommendations aimed at stiffening post-certification monitoring and accountability, Doyle was attempting to remedy the fact that, currently, the “EAO’s oversight of certified projects is not sufficient to ensure that potential significant adverse effects are avoided or mitigated.” Applying that statement to the Talisman operation on the remote Williston Lake, it is no stretch to assume that, should the corporation muddy more waters than its allowable draw in order to ramp up the fracking, the EAO will not be around to notice. Even if the EAO implements all of Doyle’s recommendations, its post-certificate efforts will still be too late to protect Williston’s water quality and the environmental interests of British Columbians. Our experiences with B.C. Rail and independent power contracts have taught us there is no way to recoup our assets once agreements are signed. What is needed is a fail-safe public mechanism or audit to exert control at the application stage – before the deals are done.
Last year, discussing the aftermath of the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, I wrote: “The immediate lesson for us to learn from the Gulf disaster is that this is exactly (what happens) when people allow their governments to develop symbiotic relationships with corporations – particularly when those relationships are blanketed by cabinet secrecy.” The investigations that followed concluded that the incident was just the most recent in a long series of injuryand fatality-ridden “accidents” that were no accidents at all. Investigators found that safety procedures and regulations had been ignored for years by both BP and government regulators, and that would-be whistleblowers were too scared to go public with their knowledge. Reached for her comment on the Williston certificates, Hudson’s Hope resident Gwen Johansson, president of the conservation group Custodians of the Peace said: “Water is a publicly-owned resource but, to my knowledge, no discussion or consultation with the public ever took place regarding these precedentsetting applications. While the licence itself is public, particulars such as compensation or conditions under which withdrawal might be curtailed are not included. The public has been denied access to the private side deal with BC Hydro where those details are presumably spelled out.”
So if we care about our priceless water resources and the lands and people of the Peace, these are some questions we need answered: Who is driving energy and water decisions in Victoria? Is it the premier and her cabinet colleagues, or appointed advisors like Gwyn Morgan, founding president of Encana Gas and chairman of SNC-Lavalin? Who is telling us like it is, the BC Hydro review panel whose objective is severe costcutting, or energy minister Rich Coleman who implied money is no object for an $8-billion Site C dam and extensive flooding for another reservoir? So, bearing SNC-Lavalin’s presence in mind, does this mean Site C is being readied for yet another beyond-thereach-of-the-people publicprivate-partnership? [Emphasis added]