A pipeline company doing exploratory work is taking water from the Kispiox River without the standard water removal approvals in what environmentalists say is an apparent loosening of rules governing access to fresh water for oil and gas companies.
Environmentalists say salmon are migrating and steelhead trout are spawning now in the river and they're concerned a decision to let the company withdraw water without the standard permits amounts to a "free for all" at odds with British Columbia's new Water Sustainability Act. The government has hailed the act, which comes into effect next year, as a blueprint for protection of the province's resources.
TransCanada Corp. officials say current drilling in the Skeena watershed is occurring under a section of the old act that allows unrecorded water removal. The environment ministry confirms that section has been in use for the past four years.
However, in January, the company went through the more routine process and received a permit from the Oil and Gas Commission for short-term use of water.
"We are extremely frustrated," said Shannon McPhail, executive director of the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition.
Ms. McPhail's father, Gene Allen, is a former logger whose family owns the Bear Claw Eco-Lodge on the Kispiox River, just a stone's throw from the drilling. The lodge hosts guests from around the world and employs dozens of locals in what Mr. Allen calls "sustainable jobs" based on the bounty of local rivers.
"I can't even put a pump in that river to water my livestock or my grass," Mr. Allen said.
"There's one law for the companies and another one for the rest of us. The government has fast-tracked this work regardless of the biological and social impacts. And it's not just the water we're worried about. This is class-one moose habitat and they forgot to include the moose in their mapping. We have females calving right now on an island with helicopters flying overhead."
TransCanada's Prince Rupert Gas Transmission (PRGT) project has been allowed to take up to 5,000 litres a day of water from the Kispiox River without permits.
The Kispiox is part of a larger drilling program to assess slope stability of a number of potential river crossings for a natural gas pipeline to carry fracked gas from Hudson Hope to the proposed Pacific Northwest Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) plant near Prince Rupert.
TransCanada spokesman Davis Sheremata said the company does not need a permit because the drilling is considered "geotechnical investigation" and not "geophysical exploration." The latter is generally exploration for oil and gas while geotechnical investigation involves exploration for construction purposes, in this case, a potential natural gas pipeline. "Prince Rupert Gas Transmission (PRGT) is not required to seek approval from the OGC for withdrawal of water for geotechnical activities if those activities meet conditions for the diversion point: not located within park boundaries, not less than five metres wide and not legally designated as 'sensitive' or a stream subject to the Fish Protection Act," says Mr. Sheremata.
A spokesman for the commission, Hardy Friedrich, said a complete environmental management plan was developed by TransCanada before the investigative permits were issued by the commission for the land-based portion of the drilling program. But he referred questions about water to the Ministry of the Environment.
"I cannot speak to why it was done that way," said Mr. Friedrich. "We wouldn't have anything to do with it, it's the Ministry of the Environment's file."
The Ministry of the Environment pointed The Globe and Mail back to the Oil and Gas Commission.
"I can tell you that because the water amounts are relatively small, they wouldn't have to be reported," said ministry spokesman David Karn.
The Skeena coalition has asked the commission to voluntarily order the suspension of Kispiox drilling until moose are finished calving in July. The commission has declined.
John Dunn, a vice-president for TransCanada's Prince Rupert Gas Transmission project wouldn't comment about the water removals and wildlife impacts.
"I'm not sure how we can respond to concerns we have only heard second hand," he said.
"TransCanada considers engagement with communities, landowners and First Nations to be imperative. … This project started as a 750-kilometre pipeline. We have added almost 150 kilometres largely in response to consultation around environmental and construction impacts along the length of the pipeline, including in the Kispiox.
"I would challenge you to find another project that has moved as far as we have in response to local concerns."