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Regulatory compliance optional for oil companies drilling in Nova Scotia

by Ken Summers

One of the 3 wells Triangle Petroleum drilled 6 years ago, says it plans to abandon the wells and reclaim the sites, but has conditions on when that will be done.
One of the 3 wells Triangle Petroleum drilled 6 years ago, says it plans to abandon the wells and reclaim the sites, but has conditions on when that will be done.
11 year old abandoned oil well site Triangle acknowledges it needs to to reclaim, but says compliance is dependent on the same factors with their indefinite time horizons. No comment yet from Minister Younger about whether this is acceptable.
11 year old abandoned oil well site Triangle acknowledges it needs to to reclaim, but says compliance is dependent on the same factors with their indefinite time horizons. No comment yet from Minister Younger about whether this is acceptable.

When it comes to deciding whether fracking will be allowed, governments engage heavily in the promotion and selling of the practice to the public.

One of the pillars of that promotional effort is always the argument that we have the best/strongest regulations on the continent. That was the claim when the Alward government in New Brunswick rolled out its new fracking regulations.

In Nova Scotia we have two successive governments taking the extra step of studying whether to allow fracking. The language used here is about looking at so called “best practices.”

But regulations and best practices are only as good as the monitoring and enforcement behind them.

So what is the monitoring and enforcement track record in Nova Scotia?

Halifax Media Co-op articles over the last two years have focused on the role of the Department of Environment

But the lead regulator for the onshore extraction of oil and gas is the Department of Energy. As well as a direct lead role Freedom of Information documents central to that series of Media Co-op articles reveal a persistent indirect involvement by Energy in specific industrial activities regulated by the Environment department.

The role of the Department of Energy has recently come into public scrutiny with the discovery of an 11 year old abandoned oil well site in Cogmagun, Hants County. The well is the responsibility of Triangle Petroleum, the same company that did the Kennetcook area fracking, and that is responsible for the two six-year old 'temporary' fracking waste water storage ponds there.

Cogmagun resident Kimm Kent asked Minister of Energy Andrew Younger if Triangle was going to be compelled to reclaim the site now that it has been brought to light. Departmental communication staff replied that they have not been able to get permission from the landowner to inspect the site.

When questioned about the Cogmagun site Triangle Chairman Peter Hill acknowledged that the Cogmagun site was in need of remediation and said that Triangle would do that “when they remediate the five wells of the Kennetcook and Noel area” that they drilled in 2007 and 2008.

But Hill also said that remediation of those sites depends on resolution of the issue of disposal of waste water at the two Kennetcook well sites. It will be at least another year before those ponds might be drained.

We relayed the information received from Peter Hill, namely that Triangle acknowledges that the Cogmagun site needs to be remediated, but that they do not plan to do so until at an unspecified time that is at least a year away, to the Department of Energy.

The reclamation of the Cogmagun site is already 11 years overdue, and the capability to do so has nothing to do with reclaiming the five wells in the Kennetcook area.

However, when Minister Younger was asked to speak to whether this uncertainty from the company was acceptable, Energy staff responded that they had no further information.

Triangle Petroleum’s 2007 Environmental Management Plan approved by the Department of Energy required that domestic water wells near the sites have baseline testing done before any drilling occurs. The plan also established that there be testing of the soil before any hydraulic fracturing happens.

At an October 2012 community meeting government staff had to be shown the document to speak to it. Neither the soil or water well testing was done.

Recently the Department of Energy was asked about the three wells in the Kennetcook area which Triangle has said publicly that it intends to abandon.

Since reclaiming these three well sites also does not depend on the capability to reclaim the two sites that cannot be done yet because of the presence of waste ponds, what is the Department's explanation of why Triangle has not yet been required to reclaim the sites?

Energy spokesperson Darcy Macrae argued that the wells “were not officially abandoned” and noted that Triangle was still paying the leases to occupy the land.

Triangle pays about $200 per month lease for the well sites it drilled in 2007 and 2008. If the company after 11 years, is still paying the lease in Cogmagun, does that become a de facto license to not comply with regulations? The current landowner is a mystery holding company, but we know that the previous owner got the lease payments for over five years until they sold the property.

When asked why nothing had been done for 11 years about the Cogmagun site, Energy staff initially assured the author that the site “had not been forgotten.” But they were unable to provide any evidence that there had ever been any oversight. After literally weeks of ostensibly looking for documentation, staff finally answered that monitoring was complaint driven. In practice, if there are no complaints from the landowner, an oil or gas well site does appear to be forgotten.

When Energy staff were next asked whether the Department has an interest independent of landowner's wishes in sites that have old tanks and pits holding unknown substances, and sites that grow nothing and erode silt to surrounding land and streams, they did not respond.

This casual approach of the Department of Energy for monitoring and compliance stands in contrast to the very hands-on services it supplied to make sure Triangle Petroleum got all the approvals it required to operate. Staff person Kim Doane appears frequently in the earliest of NORAC's thousands of pages Freedom of Information treasure trove of documents

As with so much else when we are being sold something, Nova Scotians need to pay attention to the “fine print.” When our government assures us that we are in good hands because of “stringent regulations,” it means very little.

It is the actual practices and the real capabilities of the regulators that impact us. The government of the day changes, but one thing that seems not to change is the lack of transparency concerning the actual track record of regulators.

In this case, the Department of Energy has failed to monitor compliance, is failing at enforcing when "gaps" are brought to their attention, and has allowed Triangle Petroleum to determine the pace of remediation even when that is long overdue.

 

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