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Oil and gas development is a complex process and the BC Oil and Gas Commission (Commission) has many experts on staff to ensure each aspect is appropriately managed to protect public safety and safeguard the environment. One such area is wastewater storage.

Whenever natural gas or oil is produced, water is also often produced. This water is known as “produced” water. “Produced water” originates from deep underground formations where the oil and gas exists. “Flowback” water comes when water is injected into the formation during well completion operations and subsequently flows back to the surface. Both flowback water and produced water are similar, characterized by high salt content (saline water), hydrocarbons or metals, and/or traces of chemicals used for hydraulic fracturing. As such, all flowback and produced water is considered wastewater and must be properly recovered, contained, and managed.

British Columbia has strict laws to manage produced wastewater. Direct discharge to the environment is not allowed. All wastewater must be managed and stored in engineered piping and containment structures built to store the fluids. Containment structures may include “storage ponds” (commonly known as “frac ponds”) which are engineered earthen impoundments that include multiple synthetic liners with redundant fluid management systems for environmental protection, and storage systems commonly known as “c-rings” which are synthetically lined above ground structures that have siting, secondary containment, and monitoring requirements to provide environmental protection in the event of spillage.

Currently in B.C., there are approximately 50 permitted waste water storage ponds and they range in size from 13,000 to 134,000 cubic meters of holding capacity. There is a multi-stage review process when a company wants to build or operate a storage pond site. The process starts with an application to the Commission. The application must include a project description, engineered design drawings, geotechnical information, stability analysis, and operational aspects regarding water management. Once submitted, the application is reviewed by the Commission’s Engineering Integrity and Technical Compliance and Environmental Stewardship Teams to ensure the facilities are compliant with the regulations, there will be adequate environmental protection related to construction, operation and ongoing monitoring of the storage pond. The application will be reviewed with respect to siting and design of the facility as it relates to the protection of groundwater resources and stability of the engineered structure.

If approved following the facility review process, a permit may be issued. In addition to regulatory requirements, these types of permits often include special conditions to address specific aspects of the project to ensure protection of the environment: That may include aspects of engineering design or construction, geotechnical assessment requirements, operational requirements, leak detection monitoring and reporting requirements, groundwater monitoring requirements, decommissioning requirements, or others.

The Commission’s Supervisor of Environmental Stewardship, Devin Scheck, is responsible for reviewing each application for engineered earthen impoundments and providing recommendations for Commission decision makers regarding the siting, operations, monitoring, reporting, and decommissioning of such sites. Devin holds a bachelor of sciences degree from the University of British Columbia, with a specialization in forest soil science and is also registered as a Professional Agrologist with the British Columbia Institute of Agrologists. For two decades he has worked at the Commission, gaining expertise in waste management, discharge, remediation and reclamation in the context of oil and gas development in northeast British Columbia. Devin and his team also work closely with the Commission’s Operations Branch regarding compliance and enforcement actions to ensure the Commission takes appropriate measures related to environmental protection and the remediation of sites where spillage has occurred.

Approximately 10 per cent of all wastewater storage ponds constructed in British Columbia have been reclaimed, and a further 10 per cent are no longer storing saline fluids but have been drained, cleaned and are currently storing fresh water only.

When a produced water storage pond is decommissioned, the permit holder is required to:

  • Ensure all fluids have been disposed of at an authorized facility.
  • Clean the liners of any sludge or scale and dispose of it at an authorized facility.
  • Dispose of the liner at an authorized disposal or recycling facility.
  • Investigate the site for potential residual contaminants and remediate if necessary.
  • Complete surface reclamation and revegetate in accordance with the Environmental Protection and Management Regulation.

One issue the Commission has been monitoring during the financial downturn is sites subject to insolvency or bankruptcy situations. The Commission is actively dealing with those, holding industry accountable for any clean up work.

The Commission oversees an Orphan Site Reclamation Fund, which is a levy on industry used to pay the cost of restoration of sites where the permit holder is bankrupt or cannot be located. Any permitted oil and gas activity site, including wastewater storage ponds, is eligible for designation as an orphan. The Commission has the ability to set the levy on industry to ensure orphan site restoration is completed and paid for in a timely manner. Additionally, a new Dormancy Regulation specifies requirements and timelines for dealing with dormant wells. In turn, once those well permits are cancelled, the associated authorizations for ancillary sites (such as storage ponds) are also cancelled triggering their decommissioning and restoration as well.

The expertise Devin and his environmental stewardship team provide is just part of the overall team at the Commission which includes engineers, hydrologists, biologists, hydrogeologists, agrologists, geologists, inspectors, environmental specialists, First Nations liaison officers, heritage conservation officers and emergency management specialists. Collectively, they apply a consistent application, decision, regulatory and compliance authority. As the provincial single-window agency responsible for oil and gas operations in B.C., stakeholders work with one agency; therefore, the Commission serves the public interest by having an all-encompassing review process for oil, gas and renewable geothermal activities.

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