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Independent MLAs tackle oil and gas, Site C

British Columbia's two independent MLAs were in the Peace Region this week to have a first-hand look at the issues surrounding oil and gas development, and the proposed Site C Dam.

British Columbia's two independent MLAs were in the Peace Region this week to have a first-hand look at the issues surrounding oil and gas development, and the proposed Site C Dam.

Bob Simpson, MLA for Cariboo North, and Vicki Huntington, MLA for Delta South, have taken up the issue of hydraulic fracturing associated with unconventional natural gas development, calling on the Premier to convene a Special Committee of the Legislature to conduct a comprehensive inquiry into the controversial practice. However, during their visit, they heard about many different issues surrounding the industry.

On Monday, the MLAs said they sat in on a nine-hour briefing with the Oil and Gas Commission, and they said it is clear from talking with rural residents that there is a gap between how the Commission perceives its regulation of the industry, and how those residents view that regulation.

"What we're finding is that there definitely is a gap - that the cumulative impacts are not on the radar of either government or the OGC (Oil and Gas Commission), and that they have no plan reaching out into the future in terms of what is anticipated and how those impacts are going to be monitored on behalf of the people," said Huntington. "Their interest seems to be primarily related to the efficiency and speed in which they can accommodate the industrial interest."

"As much as the OGC is a Commission that, generally, we can all be quite proud of, there are some serious gaps there that they have to be professional enough and astute enough to fill," she added.

She is concerned that the Commission needs to be far more arms-length from the industry it is regulating.

"What it looks like is you have an enforcement and compliance section that exists within the same body that permits, and there is an inherit conflict there," she said. "You see that when you hear residents saying they've talked to them [the OGC] many, many times, and they've seen sour gas incidents, but the event is never reported, or that there is no penalties associated with it. Companies can have obvious non-compliant events over and over again, but the next permit they request is given to them."

Huntington also cited the concerns raised by the provincial auditor general in a 2010 report about the OGC's ability to properly assess and reclaim abandoned wellsites in the province, saying she shares those concerns.

"They won't admit to us that is a substantial problem, but we know it's a problem," she said. "They say they only have a handful of wells left to assess - these are the abandoned or suspended wells - and once they've finished with those, everything will be hunky-dory, but where's the information? What have they done with each of those, and what were the assessments?"

Simpson said he is concerned about the perceived gap in response times to reports of gas leaks by the Oil and Gas Commission and rural residents.

"We were told, absolutely, there is a two hour response time on reports of gas smells, but we have found out from people who have experienced gas smells that it is a 24 hour response time just outside of Fort St. John," he said.

He said there are specific issues they have heard regarding gaps in regulations that they now hope to bring to the Commission in another meeting.

"We have specific examples that we can now go back to them and say, 'This is what you say you're supposed to be doing, and this is what we've been told is actually happening on the ground, so help us to understand the difference.' We think we can push the Oil and Gas Commission directly, as well as working with the government."

Huntington said the industry's consumption of water from surface sources was also a concern she shares with many residents, but she has been encouraged that the OGC now has a water modeling program.

"It looks like it's going to answer those issues, and we're delighted, because that's what had to happen," she said.

She said she is also encouraged by the ongoing Human Health Risk Assessment of the industry initiated by the Ministry of Health, though she said the test will be in whether the reports on health that are forthcoming will answer the concerns of residents, and that government will act to implement the forthcoming recommendations.

The MLAs heard from rural residents concerned about the secrecy surrounding surface lease agreements and the compensation paid to landowners for those rights.

"There is absolutely no reason that people are forced into silence," said Huntington. "There should be fair and open compensation that every farmer can rely on, and it is not right that there is not some transparency with the value of a surface right. I think the Surface Rights Board should be initiating that discussion on its own, it shouldn't take us to tell the Province that they have a problem and that the industry is cheating people out of what is rightfully theirs."

She said rural residents need accommodation from industry, and not just in fair compensation for surface leases, but in extended setback distances for wellsites built near homes, for example.

"We're not here to say this is a bad industry, we're just here to say this is a critical issue that needs to be properly regulated on behalf of the public," she said.

Brian Derfler, president of the Peace Environment and Safety Trustees Society, a grassroots industry watchdog group, said he was pleased to see the attention the two MLAs have paid to the issues surrounding oil and gas development, and is hopeful they can bring those issues forward in the Legislature.

"I think it's the awareness about what is happening in this area, and for someone to convey it in a very professional and well-spoken manner, and I think that's really important," he said. "That is something we can't get across into the Legislature."

He said the PESTS is not opposed to industry, but are concerned about issues such as flaring, setback distances from wellsites and pipeline integrity.

The two MLAs also tackled the controversial issue of the proposed Site C Dam. Simpson said he is opposed to the project.

"To me, I don't think there's a business case for Site C, I just don't see it. It would be the most expensive power that British Columbia has ever produced, and for what purpose?" he said. "I think what it would be is to build it to further subsidize corporate entities to the determent of that ecological system, and the agricultural potential that is there."

He said the government's approach to meeting future energy demand should be in community and household self-sufficiency, such as small-scale wind, solar and geothermal systems, and providing incentives such as differential rates.

Huntington said she is also concerned about what she believes is a shifting explanation as to what the power generated from Site C would be used for.

"It seems to me it's a floating power opportunity - one day we're told it's to power the homes of the province because we need that additional power, and the next day we're told that it's to power the oil and gas industry in the Northeast, and the next day we're told we need it for the LNG (liquefied natural gas) plants," she said. "I need for more data, and far more confidence that this government is operating in the best interest of the public and not just industry."

Nick Parsons, a farmer and member of the Peace Valley Environment Association, which is opposed to the Site C Dam, said he felt emboldened after talking with the two MLAs.

"They are certainly on our side, and they are going to do what they can," said Parsons. "They can take their fact-finding mission back to Victoria and explain the situation."

Simpson and Huntington said not being members of either government or the Official Opposition actually gives them advantages in raising issues around public policy.

"We are independent MLAs, and we have the opportunity to speak openly, and we don't have to maintain a party discipline or a rigid silence or a caucus loyalty," said Huntington.

"We have the freedom to say whatever we believe is an informed position on any topic whatsoever, and by using our rights in the Legislature - whether it's in question period, budget debates or bill debates - we know we influence the conversation," added Simpson.

He said their intent is not just to point out what they believe is wrong with current policies, but to suggest alternatives.

"Quite frankly, the NDP and Liberals are not very different from each other on the issues of oil and gas development, LBG (liquefied natural gas), and Site C," said Simpson. "What Vicky and I are able to do is that we are not engaged in the power struggle that is going on between these political parties, and so we're not encumbered by message boxes that constrain individual representatives. We can cut through the partisan noise, through the partisan bickering, and we can actually go to the public policy, which every MLA is elected to deal with."

He said, for example, on the issue of Site C, he hopes to raise questions to the Agriculture Minister during budget debates next week about whether the Ministry has studied the long-term agricultural implications of the project, and if the Ministry is advocating on behalf the region's farmers to make sure the contributions of agriculture to the local and provincial economies are being recognized.

"I found it ironic that the City of Fort St. John has as a major strategic initiative food security, but then we go out to a land base that can grow market garden crops to feed Fort St. John, but is going to be underwater if we build Site C," said Simpson. "The Agriculture Minister should be the champion for agriculture in the province, and I want to know what he is doing to advance the story of agriculture so that if we make the decision to go ahead with Site C, everybody knows what agricultural potential we are losing as a result."

The Legislature resumes debate on budget estimates next week.