British Columbia’s recent decision to halt plans for a new coal mine only six miles north of Glacier National Park was great news for Western Montanans, since any pollution from mining would likely find its way across the international border and into Flathead Lake. Even hard-core extractive industries booster Judy Martz joined the fray against the Canadian mine. But that raises some questions: If Martz is so worried about Canadian coal-mining pollution, why isn’t she equally worried about the effects such activities cause within Montana? And if our nation wants Canada to protect our environment, why aren’t we more concerned with U.S. pollution of Canada’s environment?
The story behind this particular Canadian coal deposit is long and complex. Thirty years ago, plans to mine what was then called Sage Creek coal sparked the formation of the Flathead Coalition. Wayne Herman, one of its founders, says the “mining threat to our waters was a unifying issue back in the 1970s and 1980s [that] brought together broad segments of our community who typically were not in agreement about various community issues.”
The Coalition, which included Montana and British Columbia sportsman groups, chambers of commerce, service clubs, professional associations, conservation groups and tribes, was pressing for “zero pollution of the Flathead.” Happily, their struggle was successful and, in 1988, mining plans were dumped after the International Joint Commission determined they would violate the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty between Canada and the U.S.
Now, however, the Sage Creek coal deposits have been bought by Cline Mining Corporation and its partner Mitsui Matsushima, a Japanese conglomerate. Their plans were to push for fast track approval and have an open-pit coal mine in full production within three years. For the present, the outcry from everyone from U.S. senators on down appears to have convinced British Columbia’s premier to stop the mine.
Unfortunately, a proposal to develop associated coalbed methane reserves has not been halted. According to Steve Thompson, the Glacier Program Manager of the National Parks Conservation Association, the BC government is “pushing forward with coalbed methane development in the Flathead headwaters of Glacier National Park.”
It has long been known that methane gas accumulates in coal deposits and is feared for its explosive capabilities, especially in underground mines. Now, however, a whole new industry has developed around tapping into coalbed methane as a source of natural gas. Unfortunately, the methods for producing coalbed methane are not without problems.
The methane in the coal layers is kept there by pressure from groundwater located above the gas deposits, so coalbed methane production requires pumping enough groundwater from around the coal deposits to relieve that pressure and capture the gas. But that’s not all. As NPCA’s Thompson adds: “Coalbed methane development requires a vast industrial complex of roads, compress stations, pipe lines and drilling pads, and it produces great quantities of wastewater that will settle in Flathead Lake.”
Putting more water into Flathead Lake doesn’t sound like much of a threat—until you look at the quality of the water that coalbed methane production releases. Unfortunately, the groundwater associated with coalbed methane deposits often contains a number of contaminants, including salts, which can damage both aquatic life as well as crops.
Ironically, while Gov. Martz opposes the Canadian coal-mining venture, she has enthusiastically supported exactly the same activities here in Montana. For example, the State of Montana received the Otter Creek coal tracts from the federal government in exchange for stopping a gold mine on the borders of Yellowstone National Park. These deposits sit right on the edge of the Northern Cheyenne reservation, and the tribe has serious concerns about what coal mining may do to their surface water, ground water, and their cultural and religious sites. Yet far from considering the deleterious effects as she did for the Canadian venture, Martz supported spending $300,000 in state funds to do the preliminary development work for companies interested in mining the coal.
Similarly, the rush to drill for coalbed methane has crept over the Wyoming border and now threatens both the Powder River and Tongue River basins of eastern Montana. Ranchers and farmers say the massive pumping of groundwater in this arid part of the state threatens their traditional springs and domestic wells with depletion, and fear the saline wastewater will pollute the surface water they use for crop irrigation. Current estimates are that as many as 30,000 new coalbed methane wells will be drilled in the coming years, with each producing a massive stream of wastewater.
Even closer to the highly contentious Canadian mine are the plans to drill for natural gas on the Rocky Mountain Front, which is located on the immediate eastern edge of Glacier National Park. The impacts from the drilling itself, as well as the associated roads, pipelines, sweetening and compression facilities necessary for production, are in many ways identical to the coalbed methane production the Canadians are proposing. Far from opposing such activity, Gov. Martz, in conjunction with the Bush administration, has been a cheerleader for the short-term “economic development” such activity will generate.
While state and federal politicians are willing to challenge Canada over the potential for cross-border pollution, they are doggedly opposed to addressing America’s acid-rain pollution of the Canadian environment. Ironically, eight eastern states are suing the federal government over the Bush administration’s decision to exempt coal-burning power plant expansions from strict pollution control requirements. Like the longstanding Canadian complaints, our own states now claim the Midwest’s coal-fired power plants are damaging their environment and their economies.
So far, neither Bush nor Martz seem to have any awareness of the problems their environmental hypocrisy may spawn. But the Canadian coal is still in the ground, and some day our big, friendly neighbor to the north may decide that “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” If that happens, given the hypocrisy of the Bush and Martz environmental policies, we’d be hard-pressed to argue otherwise.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.