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Fort Nelson First Nation not surprised by leaked audit’s info about energy vs caribou

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FORT NELSON, B.C. — A leaked audit that revealed energy companies in northeastern British Columbia routinely ignoring rules for development on caribou habitat is no surprise to a local Indigenous group.

“We have concerns about how the (B.C. Oil and Gas Commission) regulates,” Katherine Wolfenden of the Fort Nelson First Nation said Tuesday.

Wolfenden helped with field work for the 2014 audit, which looked at dozens of well sites, roads, pipelines, seismic lines and other associated infrastructure to assess how well energy companies followed the rules. The areas reviewed are all on Fort Nelson’s traditional territory, which band members use extensively.

Wolfenden said the band never got the report, despite asking for it in 2016 and 2017. A leaked copy eventually arrived anonymously on her desk.

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The audit concluded none of the pipelines or roads and only 38 per cent of well sites were following guidelines.

Well pads routinely exceeded the two-hectare limit. Auditors were told those were multi-well pads, but few had more than two wells and many of those were suspended.

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Pits were often immediately adjacent to the pads, which made them as large as seven hectares. There was little evidence of interim remediation.

Seismic lines were conforming to the rules. But roads and pipelines were built side by side, which created long, straight lines through the forest up to 80 metres wide. Developments ran right up to water bodies with no buffer zones.

The audit found no way of measuring or limiting cumulative effects.

Wolfenden, who reviews development applications for the First Nation, wasn’t surprised regulations seemed to have had little impact. The commission simply grants exemptions, she said.

“They’re widespread. I’ve seen a two-sentence letter saying, ‘We’re exempting such and such from this because it costs too much or the timing’s not right.’

“In the history of (the commission) I don’t think they’ve ever not approved an application.”

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Wolfenden said even when the First Nation and a company have developed a plan they’re happy with, the commission discourages it.

“It makes it disheartening. You kind of lose belief in the system.”

The regulations were developed by the B.C. government and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. The association declined comment on the issue.

In an emailed statement Monday, the oil and gas commission defended its decision not to release the audit. It criticized the study’s methodology and said it was outdated. It did not make anyone available to answer questions.

B.C.’s Department of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources did not immediately respond to issues raised by the audit.

Charlotte Dawe of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee said well-meaning plans to protect the habitat of threatened caribou herds are being watered down throughout the province.

“Even the plans that the government has been making have already been compromised,” she said. “We’re constantly seeing plans released that are weaker than the federal (caribou) recovery strategy.”

Wolfenden said her First Nation just wants the regulator to stick to the rules. She said she’s frustrated by her government’s strong environmental stand on pipelines from Alberta compared to its lax performance in its own northern areas.

“We sit up here and we see what’s happening with pipelines and it seems we’re forgotten about. Out of sight, out of mind.”

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