B.C.’s rapidly expanded shale gas industry has made progress on reducing fresh water use, but more study is needed on its seismic effects, emissions of methane-intensive gas and disposal of fluids, an expert panel has told the provincial government.
Premier John Horgan delivered on an election promise by appointing an independent panel of experts to study hydraulic fracturing and associated environmental effects, and their report was released Tuesday.
The report follows an audit of the growing natural gas industry released last week by B.C. Auditor General Carol Bellringer, reporting that a half century of drilling in northeastern B.C. has left a backlog of more than 7,000 inactive gas well sites that have not been permanently sealed with concrete and had their sites remediated.
The gas drilling review panel concludes that the current regulations in place in B.C. “appear to be robust,” but the rapid growth of the industry since horizontal fracturing became widely used in the 1990s meant not enough data were available to the panel to assess the effectiveness of compliance and enforcement with those regulations.
• Water quality: The panel heard from representatives of Treaty 8 First Nations as well as academics, government staff, consultants and environmental activists. “Water quality in Northeast B.C. ultimately is vulnerable to contamination,” the panel concluded. “Because shale gas development is a relatively recent activity in B.C., as it is elsewhere, there has been much scrambling on the part of researchers, regulators and government and non-government agencies to collect data.”
The report notes that the cities of Dawson Creek and Fort St. John do regular water quality testing of their municipal supplies. “Overall, no trends have been observed.”
• Vertical migration of fluids: A hydrogeologist with the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission told the panel that while there remains public concern, “at the depths of hydraulic fracturing in B.C., the potential for a pathway connection to the usable groundwater zone due to hydraulic fracturing propagation is negligible.”
Another expert from the Geological Survey of Canada said studies of fluid migration from shallower formations in Quebec and New Brunswick have found fractures in the uppermost 60 metres of bedrock, and that dissolved methane has been found in shallow groundwater.
• Seismic effects: Small earthquakes induced by oil and gas activities were first detected in B.C. in 1984, and they occur mainly from pumping waste water back into deep rock formations for disposal. Of the 35 detected overall, the largest in 1994 was magnitude 4.3 and moderate shaking was felt over a wide area.
In the Montney shale region, waste water disposal was moved to a different rock formation after a series of earthquakes was recorded up to 2015. The report recommends assessment of “fault slip” in each formation before fluid-injection operations.