The British Columbia government missed an opportunity to address province-wide concerns about coalbed methane (CBM) in the recently announced Oil and Gas Activities Act. The Act does little to fix weak points in the province’s approach to coalbed methane development, according to preliminary analysis by the Pembina Institute. The Act received first reading on April 8, 2008.
British Columbia has a poor track record on managing environmental impacts from oil and gas development in the province’s Northeast, says Jaisel Vadgama, Senior Policy Analyst at the Pembina Institute. When it released a new Energy Plan last year, the government said it was committed to ensuring best practices for coalbed methane. But the Oil and Gas Activities Act doesn’t take clear steps in that direction.
CBM typically has a larger environmental footprint than conventional gas. In order to be viable, there must be more wells, spaced closer together, than in conventional production. This increases the amount of environmental impact per cubic foot of gas produced. In addition, many coalbed methane wells in British Columbia initially extract water, which sometimes needs special disposal. Groundwater extraction can also lead to changes in the water table and in stream flows.
In certain places, the total impacts of coalbed methane development would simply exceed the limits of what is ecologically or socially acceptable, says Greg Brown, Policy Analyst at the Pembina Institute. Projects rarely go ahead unless an entire field is developed. Yet approvals continue to be granted on a well by well basis, without taking full-project impacts into account.
Currently, most decisions about coalbed methane development including road construction, well permitting, produced water handling and decommissioning are made by the Oil and Gas Commission (OGC). The OGC does not have an automatic mandate to assess when impacts from coalbed methane projects will exceed social or environmental thresholds.
In virtually every part of the province where coalbed methane projects have been proposed from Elk Valley to Princeton to Hudson’s Hope to Comox to the Skeena they are facing community concern and opposition, adds Vadgama. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Until there’s a public discussion to determine whether, and under what conditions, coalbed methane development is acceptable in this province, we’re still going to be missing the most basic element of best practice on CBM: social licence to operate.