Rich Coleman’s ‘world-class’ fracking standards lag far behind those in Europe and the U.S.

‘World-class’ is a meaningless phrase babbled by B.C. politicians

By Stephen Hume, Vancouver Sun columnist, July 16, 2014.

The University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre recently urged improving standards for regulating disposal of waste water from fracking, a technique by which natural gas is released from deep formations by shattering rock with hydraulic pressure.

Regulators in the U.S. are expressing concerns about disposing waste water from fracking.
Regulators in the U.S. are expressing concerns about disposing waste water from fracking.

Rich Coleman, the minister of natural gas development, responded with a letter to the editor huffing that the province already has “world-class standards.”

Ah, “world-class,” that mantra so beloved of our provincial politicians. A cursory search of Hansard turns up more than 700 proud announcements that B.C.— and by inference its government — is “world-class.”

Turns out we have “world-class” ski hills, universities, companies, legislation, cities, parks, oil spill recovery plans, research labs, disability management, public transit, recreation, rivers, kindergartens, resorts, ferries, athletes, film, surgery, sawmill inspections, grizzly bear hunting regulations, wheelchair athletes, wood, wine, minerals, achievers, airports and people.

That’s just a small sampling. Everything in B.C. adorned with government’s fingerprints seems to be “world-class.”

But here’s the point raised by the UVic researchers: How do B.C.’s fracking and waste water regulations qualify as “world-class” if they are inferior to the European Union and the United States which are, by the way, even now improving regulations that already exceed B.C.’s?

Does this make EU and U.S. standards “better-than-world-class?”

And since those jurisdictions are presently revising standards to make them more stringent, will that mean “better-than-better-than-world-class” standards?

For example, in the EU, say the UVic researchers, standards require strategic environmental assessments before any fracking and disposal operations for waste water. B.C.’s “world-class” standards don’t require such assessments.

The EU requires analysis and monitoring of the toxicity of any waste water injected into disposal wells; B.C. doesn’t, the university group says. Nor, it says, does B.C. require comprehensive baseline studies of surrounding groundwater and surface water.

Critics complain that in B.C. there records of the quality of injected waste liquid aren’t available because no regulations require tracking the source of liquid waste and quality isn’t regularly analyzed.

Nor, they claim, are there requirements for continuous monitoring to confirm that what’s supposed to be happening in hydrological systems is actually happening.

Thus, should there be an unexpected leak or unnoticed movement of liquid waste up the water column and into shallower aquifers used for drinking water or connected to surface aquatic ecosystems, it’s currently impossible to know whether this is happening because it is not consistently monitored.

So, if we don’t know what is going down the bore hole or what is happening to it after it gets there, is this “world-class?” Measured against what standards?

Was it “world-class” regulation when environmental assessments of gas plants were required? Or was it “world-class” when government quietly dispensed with the requirement? Or was it “world-class” when environmental assessments were abruptly reinstated in the face of political fallout for dropping them?

Or is “world-class” simply whatever some cabinet minister expediently says it is? Frankly, in B.C., “world-class” sounds more like “fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants” and amateurish boosterism.

Oklahoma, Colorado, Texas, Ohio and New York all express new concerns over the geological consequences of both fracking and the re-injection of massive quantities of toxic waste water during the process.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission stopped the disposal of waste water into an old well after it was linked to a series of local earthquakes. In Texas, regulators are re-examining fracking standards after a series of complaints about trees and vegetation dying as a consequence of waste water spills and earthquakes in the vicinity of waste water injection wells.

In Ohio, regulators recently stopped seven fracking operations after multiple earthquakes in the same day and halted waste water disposal at another well. In Oklahoma, where the frequency of earthquakes strong enough to be felt has increased 44 times since a dramatic increase in fracking operations, there’s growing political pressure on regulators to revisit state standards.

And in New York, where there’s now a statewide moratorium on fracking while potential health effects are evaluated, the courts recently ruled that more than 170 towns which have passed bans or moratoriums on fracking within their municipal boundaries have a legal right to do so.

“Reform is sorely needed for this booming industry,” the UVic group says. It cites a recent Environment Canada report that concludes fracking raises potential risks because the industry’s rapid growth has outpaced credible baseline data, scientific knowledge and necessary monitoring.

Our government would serve us better by proactively reviewing B.C.’s standards in light of what’s happening elsewhere — and committing to greater transparency about the process.

We’re not served well by government that sticks its fingers in its ears and drowns out legitimate concerns with that tired old chant that what it does is, of course, “world-class.”


Related Story from June 16, 2014: Fracking waste water being injected into old wells in northeastern B.C.

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