More than seven billion litres of water were used for fracking in B.C. last year. If the government's liquefied natural gas sector takes off, the water needed to get shale gas out of the ground in the northeast corner of the province will likely increase by 500 per cent, or more.
Much of that water is consumed with only minimal regulation. A new law set to be introduced in the spring would, for the first time in B.C., impose fees for the use of groundwater and allow for government to restrict water use in times of scarcity. But it's not likely to rein in the practise of hydraulic fracturing, which is critical to the development of LNG.
Lana Lowe is the director of the Fort Nelson First Nation's department of land and resources. The water taken out of the band's territory has already increased 12-fold in the past two years. Sitting in on an environmental appeal board hearing in Victoria in late December, where the Fort Nelson are trying to stop just one of the many applications for a fracking project in their backyard, Ms. Lowe senses that they are trying to stand in the way of a locomotive.
"There is a gold rush on our water resources," she said, during a break in the hearing, which has already run on for weeks. The band's chief is not attending because she is at the Site C dam hearings – the resources of this band of 800 members are stretched thin.
At issue in the appeal board hearing is Nexen Inc.'s licence to divert water from North Tsea Lake, north of Fort Nelson – up to 2.5 billion litres per year. The company stores the water for fracking. The Fort Nelson First Nation says this is in the core of their traditional territory and it infringes on their treaty rights, which grant them the right to hunt and fish as they did before they signed their treaty in 1899.
This is just one of many such projects in their territory, and the cumulative impact has transformed the north, now cross-hatched by clearings for seismic readings, the most visible mark on the landscape.
But below, the water table is changing too. Ms. Lowe recalls her grandmother used to drink straight out of the muskeg. "Our elders didn't have to bring water when they went out on the land. … Now everyone packs water. They are afraid of contamination."
Environment Minister Mary Polak is planning to bring in the new Water Sustainability Act in the spring, applying some regulation to the allocation of water rights. She said in an interview this should address some of the fears around fracking. Water used for fracking is currently sourced from both surface and groundwater – the latter source is largely unregulated. The act would require that environmental flows be considered by decision-makers before authorizing water use. Which is not to say that the government would shut off the taps.
"This act will allow us to have tighter control because we'll have better understanding, better monitoring, better reporting and the capacity to step in if there is a risk to environmental flows," Ms. Polak said. Will it bestow a social licence on fracking – something that is increasingly in question? "I think increasing transparency will be a huge part in creating that trust. We have made good strides but there is more we can do. The more information people have, the more confidence they can feel in our regulatory regime."
However, she does not see the need for a dramatic change in practices: "We don't have any evidence of drinking water contamination in our history of fracking." Then again, that is still under study. The Ministry of Health is conducting a Human Health Risk Assessment of the oil and gas sector in the region. The study is expected to be complete by the spring.
Ms. Lowe, who has reviewed the proposed changes to water regulations, doesn't take much comfort from Ms. Polak's assurances. "This new Water Act looks like they are going to make it easier for companies to get what they want for shale gas. We are getting in front of that, and it is a really tough position to be in. There is so much pressure to get this done."
Ms. Polak acknowledges that her legislation is unlikely to satisfy everyone. The new Water Sustainability Act is bound, she said, to "get people's dander up." But she accepts that as inevitable, falling back to a quote attributed to Mark Twain to describe the path ahead: "Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over."