Ecojustice’s mission is to use the law to protect and restore Canada’s environment. And although the technical nature of our work often sees us use terms like strategic litigation and ecosystem integrity, the health and wellbeing of all Canadians is at the heart of all we do.
We had this in mind as we developed a lawsuit targeting water withdrawals by oil and gas companies in northeast British Columbia, heard by the B.C. Supreme Court last month.
Reliable access to clean freshwater is critical to human health. And that’s why it’s so important for British Columbia to responsibly manage its freshwater resources, starting with ending the Commission’s practice of repeatedly — and in our view, unlawfully — granting short-term water approvals to oil and gas companies for long term water use.
We went to court to challenge this practice, which sees oil and gas companies withdrawing huge quantities of water for fracking, among other things. In a region that experiences periodic drought, this hardly constitutes responsible water management.
In big cities like Vancouver, where the B.C. Supreme Court heard our case, it’s easy to take water for granted. A network of dams, treatment facilities and sanitation systems ensures that the province’s major cities have plenty of clean water.
Unfortunately, as we discussed in Waterproof 3, water infrastructure is not nearly as sophisticated in more rural areas of the province. This means people there often rely on access to lakes, rivers, streams for the water they need — the same lakes, rivers and streams from which oil and gas companies are withdrawing massive quantities of water for oil and gas uses.
Our case is being watched closely by those most affected by the Commission’s practices. Writes Tim Ewert, director of Peace Environment and Safety Trustees, or PESTS, a regional grassroots organization that works to bring accountability and stronger regulatory oversight to the oil and gas industry in northeast B.C.
Private citizens and PESTS have not had much success in gaining the ear of government regarding our concerns for the ecological integrity of northeast B.C. and the health of the people here. Our experience has shown that the Oil and Gas Commission is not sufficiently responsive to the concerns of many residents regarding fugitive releases of raw gas or the timely results of investigations into accidents in the industry and their danger to the public and our environment. In short, we worry about the oil and gas activities all around us.
On the issue of water, we are concerned that there has not been an adequate inventory of our aquifers or detailed ground water mapping prior to all of these developments occurring. We are not confident about the extent of scientific knowledge of the effect of massive water withdrawals on the hydrological cycle or on rivers, streams and lakes in the region. We also don’t know what effect the injection into the ground of contaminated water and chemicals used by industry or the toxic by-products that come to the surface with the gas will have on our future water supply. Northeast B.C. is much dryer than the coast so the removal of large amounts of water, none of which can ever be replaced, is critical to the region.
We thank Ecojustice, the Wilderness Committee, Sierra Club B.C., and all others that worked to bring this very important initiative before the court.
Having this northern perspective on our case is a reminder to us that the implications of our work can extend beyond the narrow legal issue that we challenged. Now we await the Court’s judgment.
Adding to the uncertainty around the outcome of this case are impending legislative changes. Shortly before our case was heard, the B.C. government introduced the Water Sustainability Act, parts of which appear to specifically target the arguments we have raised and, as proposed, would legalize the practice we are challenging. We’ll be monitoring how the proposed law ultimately plays out on the ground.