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30th October 2018
B.C. grants fracking company free pass to build illegal dams

Progress Energy sidestepped the environmental permitting process for two massive dams — one as high as seven stories tall — and, under the watch of the province’s energy regulator, has gotten away with it

Ben Parfitt Oct 22, 2018 15 min read

In a decision without precedent in its 25 years of existence, British Columbia’s Environmental Assessment Office has told Progress Energy that two massive unauthorized dams that it built will not have to undergo environmental assessments.

The decision comes after the company made an audacious request to the Environmental Assessment Office to have the two dams declared retroactively exempt from review — a request that was quietly granted by the province’s self-described neutral environmental regulator on July 17.

The exemption means Progress Energy is spared having the controversial dams subject to costly, public and potentially embarrassing reviews. The dams are described as “illegal works” in documents released by the Environmental Assessment Office in response to a Freedom of Information request from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA).

The office’s decision is the latest development in a saga that came to light in May 2017, when the CCPA first reported on the existence of “dozens” of unlicensed dams. Many of the dams had been built by Progress Energy Canada Ltd., the Calgary-based subsidiary of Malaysian state-owned petro giant Petronas, a major player in B.C.’s fracking industry.

Had the Environmental Assessment Office rejected Progress’s request, the company would almost certainly have faced questions about the numerous other dams that it built without permits and that were later found to have serious structural problems.

Full environmental assessments would also have likely shone a critical light on how B.C.’s energy industry regulator, the Oil and Gas Commission, allowed all the dams to be built in the first place.

Exemption ‘fuels public distrust’
Green Party MLA Sonia Furstenau says the Environmental Assessment Office’s decision to grant Progress’s extraordinary request fuels public distrust of the relationship between government and the powerful industries it regulates.

“Progress Energy being granted retroactive exemption is an example of how trust gets eroded,” Furstenau said. “People want to see companies and industry being held to account and to see rules being followed and enforced.”

“We have a long way to go to resolve this,” Furstenau said, adding:

“A revised EA [environmental assessment process] will help, reform of professional reliance will help, but we also need enforcement and monitoring, and we need far more transparency and accountability.”

In granting the exemptions — albeit with some conditions attached — the Environmental Assessment Office partially closes the file on one of the most extraordinary applications ever brought before it.

Progress Energy responsible for two violations of B.C. environmental rules
Since the Environmental Assessment Office’s inception 25 years ago, there has never been a case where a company built not one, but two major projects in violation of the Environmental Assessment Act and then asked the agency to rule retroactively that the projects did not have to be assessed.

Among hundreds of pages of documents released by the office in response to a Freedom of Information request, is an e-mail suggesting the agency initially hoped to fast-track the process, with an extremely short turnaround that would have given members of the public virtually no time to respond.

The same e-mail also suggests that the Environmental Assessment Office from the outset leaned toward granting Progress’s request rather than making an example of the company by ordering it to completely dismantle the illegal structures and restore the lands it had so dramatically altered.

“We are expecting the Request for Exemption to come this week, and then we will likely issue an exemption in March,” Environmental Assessment Office project assessment officer, Amy Thede, wrote in the e-mail, dated January 25, 2017.

But the Environmental Assessment Office’s hopes of putting a quiet end to the matter were undone when the CCPA published its first investigation in May 2017 on the existence of the two dams, which were part of a sprawling network of unlicensed dams that had been built by Progress Energy and its competitors across northeast B.C.

(All of the unlicensed dams were built to trap large volumes of freshwater used in brute-force natural gas industry fracking operations that have triggered numerous earthquakes in northeast B.C. Water use is up spectacularly at such operations, as documented recently by investigative journalist Andrew Nikiforuk.)

The CCPA investigation was widely covered by media outlets, and resulted in numerous e-mails and calls between government ministries and agencies including the Environmental Assessment Office and Oil and Gas Commission.

By this point, Progress was embroiled in a regulatory mess, having invested millions in dams it built without first obtaining the required permits and without the Oil and Gas Commission once intervening to stop it.

Structural problems with unregulated dams a danger

The company was responsible for roughly half of more than 50 unlicensed dams on public or Crown lands in the province, including the two structures for which it sought retroactive exemption from environmental review.

The largest of these two, the Lily Dam, topped out at the height of a seven-storey apartment building. The dam cost $3.42 million to build, according to documents released by the Environmental Assessment Office in response to the CCPA’s Freedom of Information request.

The second, the Town Dam, was as high as a five-storey building and cost $1.73 million. Just one year after that dam’s construction, however, serious structural problems surfaced.

“In 2013, sloughing had begun to occur along the west berm [an earthen wall of the dam] and Progress initiated a series of upgrades and repairs including the installation of lined concrete inlet pads. This required an additional $587,000 and was completed from June to September,” reads one document submitted by Progress to the Environmental Assessment Office in March of last year.

By then, numerous problems had surfaced at other Progress dams. So extensive were the problems that senior company personnel began holding regularly scheduled weekly meetings on the dams and the numerous water licences that the company had to apply for — also retroactively.

The most serious design flaws included either a complete lack of spillways or improperly built spillways. Spillways are critical components of properly built dams.

Their absence can result in reservoirs overtopping and dam walls collapsing, as occurred with horrific consequences in 2010, when a small earthen dam near the Okanagan community of Oliver burst, triggering a mudslide. That dam was much smaller than some of the unlicensed dams built by Progress and its competitors.

Dams hold water for fracking operations

Progress’s dams are part of a vast network of infrastructure that includes natural gas well pads, wastewater pits, compressor stations and pipelines that the company built in anticipation of Petronas proceeding with plans to invest in a large liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant in Prince Rupert, the Pacific Northwest LNG project.

At the time many of the dams were built, the provincial government, then headed by Premier Christy Clark, had staked a lot of political capital on the Petronas project. Shortly after the 2017 provincial election, Petronas announced it would not proceed with the project.

Petronas subsequently announced, however, that it was a 25 per cent partner in another project, LNG Canada, led by Royal Dutch Shell.

That project officially got the green light at a signing ceremony in Vancouver on October 2 attended by company representatives, B.C. Premier John Horgan and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Horgan had enthusiastically courted the consortium saying his government would provide up to $6 billion in tax credits to Shell and its partners over a 40-year period should they proceed.

While LNG is not explicitly mentioned in the Freedom of Information documents, it is clear that the Oil and Gas Commission flagged to the Environmental Assessment Office how important the broader context of the dams was.

Dams should not be ‘papered over’ with exemptions, commission hears

In one e-mail the Environmental Assessment Office noted how the Oil and Gas Commission had contacted it in the summer of 2016 to say that it knew of two dams that were “well over the trigger” for environmental assessments.

“Both belong to Progress Energy,” the e-mail reads, “so OGC has communicated that this is a high priority.”

In another e-mail the Environmental Assessment Office notes how the Oil and Gas Commission again stressed the importance of the company involved saying: “Progress is a significant proponent in oil and gas production and these two dams are part of large operations.”

Eventually after much delay, Progress submitted its formal exemption application to the Environmental Assessment Office on July 20, 2017. A discussion then ensued about how much — or little — time to give the public to respond.

“It needs to be long enough for the public to have sufficient opportunity to comment/participate, amplified by end of summer/early fall timeline,” Alex Denis, a project assessment officer, noted in an e-mail to Monica Perry, an Environmental Assessment Office executive project director. Denis’ e-mail also noted that the office could order a consultation period of up to 75 days.

But that did not happen.

The Environmental Assessment Office eventually settled on just a 29-day public comment period and issued no press release notifying the media or the public about the process. The consultation clock was set ticking on August 24, 2017, when most British Columbians were predictably turning their thoughts to the Labour Day weekend holiday and the busy start-of-school season to follow.

A number of organizations eventually learned of the Environmental Assessment Office’s move, and filed responses. Lengthy submissions were received from the Blueberry River First Nation, a Treaty 8 First Nation whose lands and waters were impacted by the dams; the environmental law firm Ecojustice, on behalf of its client Sierra Club BC; West Coast Environmental Law Association and the CCPA.

The Ecojustice letter noted that the Lily and Town Dams had been built and were operating in contravention of the Environmental Assessment Act and that the Sierra Club was also concerned that by allowing the dams to proceed, the Oil and Gas Commission itself may have contravened the Act as well.

“This is a serious situation that should not simply be ‘papered over’ by the retroactive, unlawful issuance of exemptions. This should be addressed by the EAO through the referral of these projects to the Minister [George Heyman, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy] for environmental assessments by commissions or panels,” the Ecojustice/Sierra Club submission read in part.

Dams retroactively determined to have no significant impact

A little more than one month after public comments closed, the Environmental Assessment Office’s senior compliance and enforcement officer, Chris Parks, issued two orders to Progress Energy. The orders clearly noted that the company had violated the Environmental Assessment Act, which states that a company must not “construct, operate, modify, dismantle, or abandon” a major project, including tall dams, unless the company had first applied for and received a certificate.