07/29/2011 07:29 EDT | Updated 09/28/2011 05:12 EDT

Northern B.C. Fracking Licence Concerns Critics

CBC -- Critics are concerned that the B.C. government is allowing a natural gas company to draw water from a northern BC Hydro reservoir to use in a controversial technique called fracking.

The government has approved a long-term water licence for Talisman Energy to draw water from Williston Lake, a BC Hydro reservoir in northern B.C. for the next 20 years.

The water will be piped out of the Williston Reservoir, mixed with sand and chemicals and used to fracture shale rock underground to release natural gas.

It's one of several major water requests the government is considering from companies engaged in the process called fracking.

But critics are concerned the controversial process has been approved without serious public consultation. They say the process requires too much water and leaves toxic waste water behind.

The government is defending the practice saying it has a safe record in B.C.

"We have not received any reports or instances of aquifer contamination resulting from any fracking operations in British Columbia," said a statement issued by the Ministry of Forests, Mines, Energy and Resource Operations.

"Our technical assessment indicates that the reservoir's water levels can support the extraction," said the statement.

The practice of fracking has sparked widespread protests by environmentalists in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and was recently suspended in Quebec pending a detailed environmental review

Critics in B.C. are also concerned.

"We should not be giving away the public water resource," says independent MLA Bob Simpson

Talisman calls it "environmentally sustainable," but Simpson disagrees.

"To use fresh water for hydraulic fracturing -- pour toxins into that water...put it into permanent storage -- taking it out of the water's cycle. How's that sustainable?"

Ben Parfitt of the Centre for Policy Alternatives says he hasn't seen a water licence this big before.

He says the government promised public debate about water and fracking but nothing significant ever happened.

"I'm not aware of any....[robust] consultation taking place. I don't think the public has any idea," he said.

The Minister of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations Steve Thomson declined repeated requests for an interview, but staff at the ministry issued a statement saying the licence met all the requirements before it was approved.

"Prior to approval, a technical assessment of water availability was done, as well as several meetings with First Nations in March and April and correspondence with stakeholders and local and federal governments," said the statement.

No public consultation was required for the licence because it will draw a maximum of 3.65 million cubic metres of water per year, well below the 10 million cubic metres per year required to trigger an environmental assessment, according to the statement.

B.C. is already providing gas companies with 78 million cubic metres a year of water from rivers, creeks, and streams on short-term permits -- the equivalent of drawing down 31,000 Olympic swimming pools each year.

Parfitt says natural gas industry's future demands for water exceeds the amount of water all of Vancouver uses.

The Williston Reservoir is B.C.'s biggest freshwater body, and in the top 10 reservoirs worldwide. It's located across a vast swathe of northern B.C., stretching from approximately MacKenzie to Tsay Kay Dene to Hudson's Hope.

The water for the Talisman project is to be drawn from the Farrell Creek near Hudson's Hope, through a pipeline near Beryl Prairie Road.