BC Hydro safety expert repeatedly warned bosses about frac risk to dams, FOI documents show, Utility says concerns are overblown, despite warnings from its own specialist

Think the higher ups at BC Hydro give a damn (pun intended) about harms to the public from frac quakes impacting Site C dam? Even the feds are in on the frac quake cover-up!

What the Frac Hell is going on in Canada! 3.9M earthquake west of Frac’d Crazy Fox Creek Alberta reported by Earthquakes Canada, 1 km depth, now scrubbed from their website!

The Quake Threat to Dams Posed by Fracking Was Long Warned, A new trove of internal exchanges shaken loose by Ben Parfitt amplifies decades of safety urgings by Andrew Nikiforuk, 10 Jan 2020, TheTyee.ca

“Why is this so difficult?” a BC Hydro dam safety engineer plaintively asked his superiors seven years ago.

He’d been stymied again in proposing that because the risks of earthquakes caused by fracking were clear, preventing disaster required creating “no frack” zones around dams.

His sense of urgency runs through a long thread of discussions within BC Hydro and the Oil and Gas Commission surfaced by investigative researcher Ben Parfitt.

For years now the two crown agencies have been reluctant to publicly talk about the risks earthquakes triggered by the oil and gas industry pose to critical dam infrastructure throughout northeastern B.C.

But a freedom of information request by Parfitt at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has shed new light on what has been a long and often acrimonious internal debate.

Hundreds of emails, letters, memos and meeting notes released by the utility in response to Parfitt’s request and his just published investigation make the following important revelations:

Officials at BC Hydro have been concerned about the shale gas industry since 2007 when coal bed methane extraction resulted in seismic activity at the Peace Canyon Dam near Hudson Hope.

The Peace Canyon Dam, which provides six per cent of the province’s electricity, is built on fragile shale rock and wasn’t built to withstand even modest earthquakes.

BC Hydro officials warned numerous people in the provincial government, including senior bureaucrats and unidentified ministers, “that fracking near its dams could have grave consequences, including the worst possible outcome—an outright dam failure. Yet its repeated calls for firm no-frack zones near its dams continue to go unanswered,” reveals Parfitt.

After CNRL triggered a 4.5 Magnitude earthquake in November of 2018 that forced the evacuation of the Site C Dam site, its engineers have begun to reassess seismic safety at the dam and to expand on previous studies done prior to its approval.

How fracking causes quakes

The issues are dramatic and will become more significant as fracking and waste water disposal activity increases to support the province’s push for LNG exports to Asia.

In the last decade, as The Tyee has reported in numerous articles since 2011, the petroleum industry has repeatedly broken seismic records in the vast Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin and has caused geologic changes, especially in the Montney shale basin in northeastern B.C.

It has triggered thousands of earthquakes including dozens of significant felt events reaching a magnitude 3 or 4.6.

The primary culprit is fluid injection, including hydraulic fracturing and the injection of toxic waste water deep into the ground.

Fracking blasts significant amounts of water, chemicals and additives into shale rock over short periods, while waste water disposal injects large amounts of water over long periods of time. Both technologies can change pressures along fault lines and cause earthquakes.

The problem for dam engineers is that industry-made quakes behave differently than natural events by causing severe ground motions caused by shallow industry induced quakes.

Earthquakes triggered by hydraulic fracturing can exceed “what the natural hazard was in the first place” explained seismic hazard expert Gail Atkinson to the Tyee in 2015.

In addition they pose real risks to infrastructure only built to withstand natural earthquake hazards. Seismic jolts caused by fluid injection can create more damaging ground motions at lower magnitudes than natural quakes due to their shallowness, explained Atkinson.

The safety engineer who sounded alarms

In compiling a brief chronology of the ongoing debate, largely based on emails and memos exchanged between B.C. Hydro and the OGC from 2009 to 2019 that Parfitt shared with the Tyee, one voice stands out. Scott Gilliss, a dam safety expert based in Hudson Hope issued repeated warnings to superiors which make compelling reading.

“My concern is for the future,” he says in one 2013 email. “Since our province has big hopes for LNG, which would certainly expand hydraulic fracturing operations and injection.”

1976 March: A U.S. study published in Science confirms that “earthquakes may be triggered by increase in fluid pressure” underground.

1990: A report prepared for the US Environmental Protection Agency and the US Geological Survey finds that deep well injection including fracking has triggered documented earthquakes in Colorado, Texas, New York, New Mexico, Nebraska, and Ohio and possibly in Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

1994 June: A Canadian study documents that fluid injection in an oil field outside Fort St John has caused earthquakes as large as Magnitude 4.3.

2009 October: After mapping the occurrence of several earthquakes near Fort St John and Halfway River and others for a 200 km radius around its dams in Peace River, BC Hydro dam safety engineer Scott Gilliss asks himself a question: “Are the clusters of earthquakes being caused by the oil and gas industry?”

Stephen Rigbey, Manager of Dam Safety, replies: “Great Catch. The potential for induced seismicity needs to be addressed at a higher level.”

2009 December: Ray Stewart, director of dam safety for BC Hydro, notifies the province that coal bed methane extraction involving fracking near Hudson Hope may pose “immediate and future risks to BC Hydro’s reservoir, dam and power generation infrastructure.” The risks include induced seismicity, ground subsidence and reactivation of existing faults.

2010 February: BC Hydro reports to the provincial government (the Comptroller of Water Rights which is responsible for dam safety) that a number of reported “felt” seismic events occurred at the Peace Canyon Dam between May and August of 2007. “We hope you find this information useful in your investigations into the effects of the coal bed methane extraction program” taking place near Hudson Hope, B.C.

2010 April: Scott Gilliss notes in an email to his peers that the drilling of coal bed methane wells near the Peace Canyon Dam could pose many different risks including seismic activity and collapse of the ground. “These drilling extraction projects come with too many unknowns for anyone to be able to accurately assess long term impacts and it’s best to keep them away from our dams/reservoirs.”

2010 November: Scott Gilliss again raises more concerns about oil and gas activity in the Peace Region and its impacts on dams. “BCH has to start being proactive to find out…how close the oil and gas drilling and extraction is coming to the reservoir/dams…before it goes too far and becomes a problem.”

2010 November: Gilliss reports to his superiors that two earthquakes occurred about 15 to 25 km northeast of the Bennett Dam as a result of operations by Talisman Energy. “There is potential here for increased seismic activity.”

Stephen Rigbey, manager of dam safety, later informs Gilliss that “your broken record was listened to. This entire issue was discussed at the highest level (Minister to Minister) and was ‘officially’ shut down by out then Director of Dam Safety. Until and unless we see a direct smoking gun…this is a dead issue.”

The OGC tells the Tyee there hasn’t been any links between hydraulic fracturing and “anomalous seismic activity.”

2011 September: Stephen Rigbey, manager of dam safety, reports to colleagues that the Army Corps of Engineers has declared a 3000-foot buffer zone around its dams in most of Texas and several other states where it will not allow new oil and gas drilling.

2011 February: After another company requests permission to draw water from the Williston Reservoir for hydraulic fracking, Scott Gilliss notes in an email to colleagues: “As I have expressed to you, my concerns are related to the overall plans of exploration and development of these shale gas resources” because part of the area being developed “may extend below the WAC Bennet Dam” where there are concerns about seismic stability.

2011 November: Chris Kowalchuk, an engineering geologist at the Site C Dam, reports that the Oil and Gas Commission has informed him that hydraulic fracturing has set off a swarm of 31 earthquakes in the Etcho Field north of Fort Nelson.

Kowalchuk adds that “last year the OGC advised us there was a very low likelihood seismicity induced by fraccing at the Montney and Beryl fields near Site C. “This event hints that this may not be the case.”

2012 August: The OGC admits that hydraulic fracturing has cause scores of “anomalous seismicity” in the Horn River Basin in northeastern B.C.

2012 October: After the OCG finally admits that induced earthquakes have occurred in Farrell Creek, near dams on the Peace River, Scott Gilliss writes in an email: “What a shocker! Are they sleeping or what?”

March 2013: BC Hydro Principal Engineering Scientist Dr Des Hartford informs Scott Gilliss that his concerns about hydraulic fracturing near dams have been heard and that “you have discharged your responsibilities with respect to reporting and management of this matter.”

Hartford adds, “Fundamentally, hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) is one of these ‘new and emergent’ threats that require examination in the context of scientific and policy considerations.”

March 2013: Gilliss replies in an email to Hartford that he has gathering a large file on hydraulic fracturing including the case of California’s Baldwin Hill Dam which failed in 1963 due to extensive oil and gas development including fluid injection.

Gillis says that he first noticed new earthquakes being added to the national earthquake database as major fraccing operations began in 2010. “In my view, which I have already shared, the province should simply add buffer zones around any very Extreme and Very High Consequence Dams where hydraulic fracturing cannot be undertaken without a prior full investigation into the risks and an implemented risk management plan. Why is this so difficult?”

December 2013: The OGC introduces a new traffic light system that asks operators to stop fluid injection operations only after they have caused a Magnitude 4 earthquake.

In an email Scott Gillis describes the system as inadequate: “I would question why they are proposing to cease operation only when they exceed M4….Surely it matters what risks there are in a given area. I can’t see us being too happy after a series of M3.9’s felt at a dam, nor would a town be overly impressed.”

2015 August: Malaysian-owned Progress Energy triggers a record 4.6 earthquake north of Fort St. John. It was felt by citizens nearly 100 km away.

2015 December: The OGC releases a report confirming that hydraulic fracturing and waste water injection triggered in the Montney shale 231 tremors between August 2013 and October 2014 alone. The Montney shale basin surrounds three dams in northeastern B.C.

January 2017: Canadian Energy Partners begins a water disposal operation just three km north of the Peace Canyon Dam. This kind of fluid injection can cause major earthquakes.

2017 March: Manager of Dam Safety Stephen Rigbey reports to Stuart Venables, the OGC’s senior petroleum geologist, that the Peace Canyon Dam wasn’t built to withstand significant earthquakes.

“You may find this surprising, but the site was not designed to any particular ground motion. The rule of thumb of the day was to consider 0.1g {peak ground acceleration) in designs….I’ve seen data that show M4-4.5 earthquakes have generated ground motions greater than 0.2g within 10 km of the epicenter.”

Ron Stefik, an OGC supervisor, wrote back: “The seismic tolerance you have noted below is of high concern.” He asked for more engineering reports.

Later that month the OGC suspended disposal activities at the well operated by Canada Energy Partners.

May 2017: Canada Energy Partners contests the suspension of its disposal well before the BC’s Oil and Gas Tribunal.

2017 July: Gail Atkinson, one of the nation’s foremost experts on seismic hazards, recommends a five km “no frack” zone around critical infrastructure as well as 25 km zone where seismic activity is closely monitored.

2017 August: The Oil and Gas Tribunal upholds the suspension of activities at Canada Energy Partner’s well.

December 2017: A few months later the OGC notifies BC Hydro that it will allow Canada Energy Partners to continue fluid injection by the Peace Canyon Dam provided it meets 17 conditions. Emails from BC Hydro employees say the utility was not consulted.

An email by dam safety manager Stephen Rigbey notes that BC Hydro has limited options to restrict oil and gas development that could threaten its infrastructure.

The agency could make an appeal to the Oil and Gas Tribunal “destined to fail” or “initiate a court challenge” or buy out the well at a cost of $5 million.

“We cannot come up with any other alternatives other than ensuring we have strict protocols in place.”

In the same month BC Hydro dam safety engineers meet with OGC to consider ground motion protocols and better coordination on seismograph stations in the region.

January 2017: An inter-office BC Hydro memo strongly disagrees with the decision to re-open the disposal well by the Peace River Dam noting that hydraulic fracturing and water disposal wells can trigger “seismic events of varying magnitiude.” It adds, “The potential for induced seismicity due to operation of the well would impose a new hazard at the Peace Canyon Dam.”

Meanwhile the OGC orders all oil and gas permit holders within 5 km of the WAC Bennett, Peace or Site C dam notify BC Hydro of their fracking and drilling activities.

May 2018: The OGC issues a special project order for operations in the vicinity of Site C that requires permit holders to suspend hydraulic fracturing operations if they trigger a magnitude 3 event and to report events with magnitude 1.5 or greater.

November 2018: A CNRL fracking operation triggers three earthquakes including a Magnitude 4.5 that shakes Fort St John and the work site of the Site C dam. Workers feel a strong initial jolt followed by several smaller shakes and then a larger jolt.

The tremor forces BC Hydro to shut down construction operations and evacuate a cofferdam. Due to an “Unusual Operating Condition” Knight Piesold Consulting recertifies the cofferdams for safety and declares them safe for worker access.

2019 January: Following the 4.5 earthquake that rocked the Site C Dam, Andrew Watson, a design engineer on the Site C project, reports that “there may be some analysis exploring the sensitivity of the response of some of the structures to a range of potential motions” from fracking earthquakes. He notes that current input parameters to study the impacts of earthquakes on Site C dam may not be “suitable to the structures being studied” given the recent the size of the recent quake.

2019 September: The Alberta Energy Regulator issues an order restricting fracking activity near TransAlta’s Brazeau Dam located 55 kilometres southwest of the densely drilled Drayton Valley following a magnitude 4.3 earthquake in the region last March.

The regulator officially banned fracking within five kilometres of the dam site in the deep Duvernay formation, and within three kilometres of the dam site in the shallower formations above the Duvernay.

2019 October: A report written for the BC Oil and Gas Commission says researchers can’t yet answer basic questions about where fracking will trigger earthquakes or why some frack jobs set off only small earthquakes while others trigger larger ones.

The independent geological report by the Calgary firm Enlighten Geoscience finds incomplete seismic data and complex geology are major obstacles to understanding the potential hazard posed by fracking-triggered earthquakes in northeastern B.C.

2019 November: A major U.K. Oil and Gas Authority investigation concludes that it is not possible to predict the timing or severity of tremors caused by the industry. The British government replies by temporarily banning fracking as a threat to public safety.

BC Hydro safety expert repeatedly warned bosses about fracking risk to dams, FOI documents show, Utility says concerns are overblown, despite warnings from its own specialist by Rafferty BakerCBC News, Jan 09, 2020

A dam-safety specialist at BC Hydro repeatedly raised concerns about the proximity of fracking operations to dams in northeastern B.C. and the risk of damage from fracking-induced earthquakes, according to documents gathered through Freedom of Information requests — but the concerns were dismissed by his superiors.

The internal documents were obtained by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and included in a report titled Peace Canyon Frack-Up, in which author Ben Parfitt says fracking — and the earthquakes it can cause — may threaten dam infrastructure.

Some of BC Hydro’s biggest dams are found in the Peace Region. It’s an area dotted with natural gas operations — many of which now rely on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract the gas. The utility operates its huge W.A.C. Bennett Dam and Peace Canyon Dam on the Peace River and is building its Site C Dam on the same river. 

The documents, which have been shared with CBC News, show BC Hydro dam safety specialist Scott Gilliss repeatedly raising the issue of earthquakes caused by fracking, the increase of nearby fracking activity and dam safety with superiors.

The documents show that Gilliss is told his “broken record” warnings have been heard and brought to the “highest level” — provincial ministers.

But according to the documents and Parfitt’s report, that’s as far as it went. Gilliss was told it was a “dead issue.”

Previous warnings

In 2016, CBC News covered Parfitt’s work and similar warnings he uncovered at the time, but the resource policy analyst says he has gathered much more information in three years worth of additional FOI requests.

“We have learned that there are much greater risks to BC Hydro’s dams, and in particular its Peace Canyon Dam, should earthquakes occur near the dams,” he said. “The Peace Canyon Dam has known foundational problems, that there is an increased risk to damage to that dam by nearby earthquakes.”

In November 2018, a 4.5 magnitude earthquake — believed to be caused by fracking — was felt at the Site C Dam construction site which led to a brief work stoppage and inspection to ensure there was no damage.

When Parfitt’s warnings were first aired, Chris O’Riley, then deputy CEO of BC Hydro, said concerns about risks from fracking were overblown. Now, despite the new documents, the utility’s position is unchanged.

“We don’t believe there’s any concern for the safety of our dams,” said Bob Schubak, director of dam safety at BC Hydro. “We would acknowledge that a very close earthquake would cause some damage to our equipment.”

But he said damage would be limited to shutting down power generation — not anything that would compromise the structural integrity of the Peace Canyon Dam which is just upriver from the town of Hudson’s Hope.

Peace Canyon Dam issues

Parfitt said that BC Hydro ought to immediately undertake seismic upgrades to ensure disaster doesn’t strike at Peace Canyon Dam.

According to Schubak, the utility is already considering work to bring the dam, which was completed in 1980, up to modern seismic standards. He said upgrade projects are expected in the late 2020s. 

Parfitt also called on the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission, which regulates fracking operations, to ban all fracking within 10 kilometres of hydroelectric dams. Parfitt suggests any fracking within a 15-kilometre range beyond that should be specifically authorized after careful consideration.

The commission said in a written statement that there are no fracking wells within five kilometres of any BC Hydro dam, and none within 10 kilometres of the W.A.C. Bennett or Peace Canyon dams.

Listen to interviews with Parfitt and Schubak by clicking play on the audio link at bottom of the page at: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/fracking-earthquakes-hydro-dam-vulnerability-1.5420287

17:23 Min.

Refer also to:

Fracking Study Shows California Dangers, Finds Richard Meehan Consulting; Ground Rupture in the Baldwin Hills

“….known for a spectacular failure of a dam, the Baldwin Hills Reservoir, which occured in 1963.”

Known: BC Hydro lying about fracking and dam safety?

NE BC: Monday’s 4.5 Magnitude frac quake, felt from Pink Mountain to Fort St. John (180 km), ‘likely’ caused by Progress Energy, OGC confirms

2016: Known risk of earthquakes caused by oil and gas development, BC Hydro worries about fracking unconventionals near dams, specifically coalbed methane and shale gas.

2016: B.C. ‘enhances’ earthquake monitoring at oil & gas wells after last year’s fracking shake, 4.6 quake last year largest on record in B.C.; 4.8 on day of Ernst vs AER hearing at Supreme Court of Canada largest in Alberta so far

Alberta Imposes New Frac’ing Restrictions Near Brazeau Dam after Quakes

Geoscience BC: Industry Money Thieving Scheme? Propaganda Puff Piece: Scientists focus on hydraulic fracking fallout in B.C.

4.6M earthquake, 1 km in depth, most powerful yet in central Alberta, hits SW of Red Deer, cracks walls in homes, knocks power out to thousands. Vesta Energy reports quake to AER, shuts down frac’ing. AER investigating. Geological Survey of Canada says looks like fra’cing didn’t do it

Terrifying! Injected oilfield wastewater may trigger earthquakes for ‘decades.’ More terrifying: Percentage of high-magnitude quakes felt at the surface increases with depth of waste injected & may create greater magnitude quakes years after injection rates decline or stop.

AER allows Repsol to resume fracking after causing world record 4.8M frac quake (felt 280 km away near Edmonton) in AER’s Fox Creek Blanket Approval Frac Frenzy Free-for-All Experiment. But, Repsol appears too shaken to resume

Ernst vs AER Supreme Court of Canada hearing followed by 4.8M quake in AER’s Immoral Blanket Approval Frac Experiment Gone Wild, felt in St. Albert, 280km away

Lancashire frac’ing: 1.6M earthquake stops Cuadrilla’s work “This is a serious issue and we know that seismic activity at similar levels deformed the well bore at Preese Hall, which Cuadrilla failed to report to the relevant authorities for six months.”

UK: Unbelievable! Tory Gov’t bans frac’ing! In Canada, when frac harms ramp up and industry demands deregulation, regulators deregulate. UK decision taken after new scientific study warns it’s not possible to rule out “unacceptable” consequences for those living near frac sites

Frack Patch Porn: The ultimate sexual assault by men in positions of power? Ensign drills Canada’s longest lateral, 7,770 metres (4.828 miles), at global frac-quake capital, Fox Creek, Alberta. Is it the world’s longest lateral onshore?

Quakes in Gas Fields Ignored for Years, Dutch Safety Agency’s report a relevant read for any fracking zone; Fox Creek frac quakes make AER play deregulation with you and your loved ones: “Red Light = Green Light”

Another 5.6M Earthquake Hits Frac Ravaged Oklahoma: Mitigation Obviously Not Working! Quakes Increasing, No Matter How Many Injection Wells Shut Down or Injection Volumes Reduced. State Of Emergency Declared for Pawnee County. 58,628 people felt the quake, as far as 2,323 km away in Boston, MA

This entry was posted in Global Frac News. Bookmark the permalink.