Audit finds environmental oil and gas violations in northeast BC

Nov 24, 2003 01:00 AM

An audit of the booming oil-and-gas industry in northeast BC has found widespread environmental infractions related to stream crossings and sewage disposal. Almost one third of stream crossings investigated by the Oil and Gas Commission this year violated regulations, raising concerns over potential damage to fish habitat. Another one third of remote exploration sites adopted improper sewage disposal and storage practices.
"The compliance rate is not satisfactory," Ben Mitchell-Banks, director of the commission's compliance and enforcement branch, said in an interview from his Fort St John office. "This is the most significant area of the audit."

To improve the situation for next year, the commission will require oil and gas companies to log on to a Web site and record the details of their stream crossings -- where they were built, when they were removed, type of construction and type of stream.
"That will allow us to monitor the crossings and ensure we're inspecting the ones that are athigher risk," he said.

He explained that exploration takes place in winter when the muskeg freezes over, allowing drilling equipment to navigate the terrain. Field crews typically use snow to cross streams, removing the snow in spring to avoid flooding and stream damage during freshet. Violations can occur when the bridges are not built properly, are not torn down in time, or incorporate sticks and earth that can find their way into streams. The concern is that the streams being crossed over constitute fish habitat, or flow downstream to larger fish-bearing streams.
"Everything flows to the ocean, which is why we want a very high compliance rate," Mitchell-Banks said.

The commission audit of 160 stream crossings between March 15 and April 15 turned up 51 violations -- 16 minor and 35 major. In terms of sewage disposal and storage (normally considered less of a potential environmental threat because the problem tends to remain localized), an inspection of 125 sites found 40 violations -- 19 minor, 21 major.
The failure rate in the two categories was 32 %. The oil-and-gas industry did better when it came to handling special waste -- cuttings and hydrocarbon waste from drilling -- and water usage, with failure rates of 8 % and 7 %, respectively.

Rob Carss, manager of BC operations for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said from Calgary that the list of minor non-compliance tends to involve administrative mistakes that did not put the environment at risk.
Regardless, the industry accepts the findings of the audit and looks forward to working with the commission to do better in the future.
"It's still not a good record -- it needs to be improved upon." Carss noted that companies identified during the audit cooperated immediately with the commission to resolve the problems.

Offering his own rationale for the non-compliance, Mitchell-Banks said initial plans for stream crossings are often based on aerial maps. Field crews might change their plans when they actually visit the stream site, without getting prior authorization. He also said that if snow levels are low, heavy machinery employed to make a bridge may scrape dirt and debris into the snow against regulations. Poor communication within a company may also result in failure to pull snow bridges before the spring freshet.
Compliance and enforcement staff turn their information over to provincial conservation officers within the ministry of water, land and air protection to decide if tickets or court charges are warranted. That process will change soon as the commission moves towards a "one window model" that incorporates all oil-and-gas matters into one office.

Asked if it's better to have enforcement investigations at arm's length from the commission, which is set up to facilitate oil-and-gas exploration, Mitchell-Banks argued it's no different than a conservation officer investigating a guide-outfitter who is licensed and regulated by the officer's employer -- the wildlife branch.
"There is always that question of independence and arm's length," he said. "It depends on showing you're out there doing the job, that you're showing integrity, that you have clear policies and procedures, and that you take action when non-compliance is detected."

Source: Vancouver Sun
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