Landowners in the Peace Region will have to wait at least until the fall to have easier access to surface leases so they can be better informed when negotiating with oil and gas companies over land access.
A spokesperson with the Ministry of Energy and Mines confirmed the Ministry is developing a draft regulation to bring forward to the provincial government to allow the Surface Rights Board to publish the information contained in the leases it receives from companies granted entry onto land, including monetary and non-monetary compensation. However, with the Legislature not in session again until October, it will not be possible to pass such a regulation into law before then.
The Ministry completed consultation on that proposed regulation earlier this year, and the Ministry spokesperson said the vast majority of respondents were in favour of allowing the Surface Rights Board to publish that information, although there was one concern voiced about the publishing of names and other personal information about the landowners who have signed surface leases.
“The Province is attentive to concerns raised – both before and after the consultation paper was distributed – about the protection of privacy,” the spokesperson stated. “A regulation to allow sharing of information from surface leases must balance the protection of an individual’s privacy with the public interest in providing transparency on the details of leases.”
That is despite acknowledging that information can already be obtained through a land title search through the BC Land Title Office, albeit the searcher must already know what specific title they are looking for and pay an administrative fee to complete the search.
Currently, the Surface Rights Board has a legal obligation to make surface leases available for public inspection, but at the same time does not have the authority to publish that information. That means a landowner here in the Peace must either physically travel to the Board’s office in Richmond to view a surface lease or leases, or they can obtain electronic access to that information through the Farmers’ Advocacy Office in Dawson Creek.
“People can look at the leases and they can make notes, but they can’t copy them and we can’t give them copies or publish the information in the leases,” said Cheryl Vickers, chair of the Surface Rights Board.
Under the Oil and Gas Activities Act, companies are required to submit surface leases to the Board within 90 days of gaining a right-of-entry. However, Vickers said the Board has no mechanism to ensure compliance, which the Farmers’ Advocacy Office maintains is not happening to a great degree.
“Frankly, the Board has no idea whether there is 100 per cent compliance,” she said. “We are in the process of working out with the Oil and Gas Commission some sort of mechanism by which we can try to track whether we are receiving all of the surface leases are not. At the moment, we have no way of knowing.”
The Board has the authority to terminate right-of-entries in cases of non-compliance, but she said that penalty has never been applied.
“We haven’t had any applications to terminate any entries for failing to provide surface leases. Typically, we would do that on the basis of an application that brings it to our attention that there has been a failure to comply.”
The spokesperson for the energy ministry confirmed the Ministry intends to introduce a regulation allowing the Board to impose financial penalties on companies that fail to comply, though no timeline for that regulation or any specific fine amounts being proposed were provided.
“The Ministry intends to shift its attention to the possible implementation of financial penalties for non-filing of surface leases once it has completed work on the surface lease information sharing initiative,” said the spokesperson.
Despite the Board being focused on settling disputes between oil and gas companies and landowners primarily in the northeast part of the province, Vickers said it would not be administratively efficient to have an office in the region based on the relatively small number of applications the Board receives.
“The number of applications the Board receives in a year doesn’t warrant a full-time, dedicated Board office, there just isn’t enough to do on a full-time basis,” she said.
She added being located in Richmond allows the Surface Rights Board to dovetail its administration with the administration of the Property Assessment Appeals Board located there.
“It’s just simply more efficient, that’s really the basis for it.”
She said that means most mediation between companies and landowners is initiated by conference call, and then the mediator would decide if a follow-up in person is needed, which usually involves travel from Richmond. She added information about the Board and how to access forms online is available through Service BC locations in the Peace Region.