British Columbia's Greens are pressing their partners in the NDP government to clamp down on dozens of unregulated and unapproved dams that have proliferated across the province's northeast.
Following a 2016 review of water-storage facilities in the oil and gas sector, the BC Oil and Gas Commission began inspecting 51 dams built by oil and gas companies to store water for their fracking operations.
It wasn't until Oct. 31 of this year, however, that the provincial government's environmental watchdog ordered Progress Energy Canada Ltd., the owner of the largest and the second-largest dams, to stop collecting and storing water at those two facilities.
Progress's Lily Dam and the Energy Town Dam, both north of Fort St. John, have been in operation for years. The energy company, a subsidiary of Malaysia's state-owned Petronas, only sought regulatory forgiveness in July – when the NDP government took power – with an application seeking to exempt both structures from an environmental assessment.
The largest of the two dams is taller than a seven-storey building, and both exceed the 15-metre height that requires an environmental assessment certificate before construction is supposed to begin.
"It is regrettable that this situation occurred under the previous BC Liberal government, and we are reviewing the details in order to strengthen oversight going forward," Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources Minister Michelle Mungall said in a statement provided to The Globe and Mail on Friday.
Mark Fitzgerald, president and CEO of Progress Energy, said in an e-mailed statement Friday that it was his own company that identified problems with some of its dams – including the failure to obtain proper authorizations – and brought the findings to the attention of the provincial government.
He said an engineering review of the company's water-holding facilities found no structural issues, but noted that some were larger than permits allowed.
"We own those mistakes, and are working with the [Oil and Gas Commission] to correct them. What's important to me is that we will not make these mistakes again," he said. "We're committed to working closely with the regulators and to managing our operations in an environmentally-responsible manner."
However, the Greens say a broader review, including the role of the BC Oil and Gas Commission in allowing such projects to be built without authorization, is needed.
"Despite the significant environmental and public health and safety risks associated with these projects, it appears that the government has done little to address the concerns," states an Oct. 5 letter from Green MLAs Adam Olsen and Sonia Furstenau, addressed to Ms. Mungall and to Environment Minister George Heyman. "Is the Oil and Gas Commission doing its job in policing the industry?"
The Greens have an agreement to support the minority government on specific issues, including the budget, but the Greens cannot force the NDP's hand on environmental regulation.
Mr. Heyman, in a response to the Greens dated Oct. 30, agreed the unregulated dams are troubling.
"I do share your concern regarding regulatory oversight and how this present situation of unregulated dams in northeast B.C. arose, and I have raised the matter with the EAO [Environmental Assessment Office]," he wrote.
The day after his letter was sent to the Greens, the arms-length EAO signed an inspection record that deemed the two dams to be non-compliant. However, a review of the application to exempt the projects is still under way, and a decision is not expected until early in 2018.
In an interview, Mr. Heyman said he cannot intervene in that process, nor can he say anything that might be interpreted as influencing the review. "Perhaps at the end of the process, I might have some general comments."
Meanwhile, the Oil and Gas Commission has stepped up dam inspections. During the spring, inspectors checked dams located in the Montney region and Horn River Basin – the two main shale gas basins in northeast B.C. The Commission found no incidents of failures, or release of water or sediment from any of the dams, but it did order changes at seven facilities.
Five orders were issued to Progress Energy for concerns regarding the integrity and stability of some of their dams and the company was required to draw down water levels. Another energy company, ConocoPhillips, was issued orders to empty the water from two dams.