British Columbia is in the initial phase of coal bed methane (CBM) exploration and production. CBM production requires an operator to dewater coal seam aquifers to release the methane gas for capture. It is likely the producer will have to dispose of a large amount of water related to CBM production.
The British Columbia Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection proposed a Code of Practice to regulate the discharge of produced water. The Code envisions two means of disposal of this water – to surface water or to shallow groundwater. The Code does not envision more sustainable means of disposal such as reinjection into depleted coal seams or deep injection into aquifers beneath the coal seams.
The Code establishes minimum discharge standards, requires an impact assessment prior to discharge for some proposals and establishes procedures for monitoring and recordkeeping. The purpose of this review is to comment on the level of protection from potential degradation the proposed Code provides to the waters of British Columbia.
The Code establishes parameters that the operator must meet to discharge to British Columbia streams. Based on the amount of water actually and projected to be produced, this practice could result in a substantial additional flow in some streams. The Ministry should require specific discharge permits for each proposed operation instead of a code of practice because of the poor water quality possible in discharges from CBM facilities. This would require the operator to analyze and disclose the potential impacts to the receiving waters. The application should be available for a 45 day public review and comment period. The Ministry should have the ability to require changes to the discharge, including requiring mitigation.
An individual permit-type process appears to be in place in Alberta, where a technical assessment is required, and permission must be granted before discharge from either the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board or Alberta Environment.
Problems with the general permit approach to CBM development are presently being experienced in Wyoming, where a general permit for the construction of in-stream holding ponds was invalidated by a federal court due to inadequate oversight,4 and where the State regulatory agency recently discovered the construction of unauthorized holding ponds, again due to a lack of enforcement oversight.