In the sub-alpine Rocky Mountain majesty just outside of Fernie, British Columbia, David Thomas, a Fernie city councilman, adjusts his sunglasses and leads the way through the Crowsnest Coal Field to a test coalbed methane well recently capped by its former operator, ChevronTexaco. The well is located atop a slope with a 5 to 10 percent incline, uphill from the Elk River, which runs into Libby’s reservoir and the headwaters of the Flathead River.
Fernie City Council has attempted to slow the construction of more wells like this one with three unanimous resolutions in the past five months, asking B.C.’s provincial government to wait on selling area coalbed methane drilling rights until a comprehensive environmental study can gather baseline data about water quality in the Elk.
Still, the current drilling rights auction will proceed to its conclusion on Wed., Aug. 25, says Shawn Robins, communications director for British Columbia’s Ministry of Energy and Mines. Some estimates place the value of Crowsnest methane in the billions.
Because Elk Valley drilling comes with the possibility of impacting watersheds in Montana, including some in Glacier National Park, with increased salt or metal levels, Montana is sounding environmental alarms. In step with the Flathead Basin Commission and the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, among others, Gov. Judy Martz has requested of the Canadian government that the baseline data be collected, as have Senators Max Baucus and Conrad Burns and Representative Dennis Rehberg, who last week echoed an earlier Baucus letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell requesting that the International Joint Commission (IJC) step in. The IJC was responsible for stopping mining north of Glacier in 1988 and again earlier this year.
Robins says that neither the U.S. nor concerned Canadians need worry, because water that doesn’t meet a threshold established by the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection (WLAP) cannot be reintroduced to surface aquifers, but must be injected into wells below the water table.
“We have extremely rigorous environmental standards in British Columbia and any activity or development must be in compliance with those standards,” Robins says.
“He’s full of shit,” according to Thomas. “[They’re] putting everything on the backs of the companies to police themselves. It would be laughable if there wasn’t so much at stake,” he says—namely, the ecosystem connecting the Canadian and U.S. Rockies.
This spring, the B.C. government enacted the Environmental Management Act, which critics label “a deregulation initiative.” According to the act’s Waste Disposal Regulation, some industries will be allowed to forego the traditional permitting process. The province’s leading environmental law organization, West Coast Environmental Law, anticipates the act will eliminate about 80 percent of existing waste permit requirements.
Thomas argues that the credibility of the B.C. government has eroded after a meeting with Montana officials last month where Assistant Deputy Minister for Oil and Gas David Molinski told Montana representatives that adequate baseline water-quality data had already been collected.
Casey Brennan, a member of the East Kootenay Environmental Society in Fernie, says he and many others witnessed a WLAP employee state publicly that he had just barely begun collecting data this spring prior to that meeting, and an independent report released to the Ministry of Energy and Mines months before the meeting concluded there were “relatively significant gaps” in baseline data. Thomas says he has “no hesitation in saying they lied to the government of Montana.”
Robins points to a series of conditions that any company bidding on drilling rights must pledge to honor as proof of adequate self-oversight. One such stipulates that owners of drilling rights must “conduct investigations where gaps in essential, site-specific, known provincial baseline data exist.”
But Brennan says that the conditions came into existence only because of political pressure from locals such as himself and David Thomas, and that the stipulations are mere “lip service,” featuring weak wording that doesn’t carry the weight of law.
“They have no legal effect whatsoever,” Brennan says.
Only the Shell Group is known to have expressed interest in the drilling rights on the two plots of land totaling approximately 8,000 acres, but Robins thinks “two or three” companies are interested. The Associated Press reported last week that Shell is already planning on drilling four test wells on land it owns adjacent to that which is up for auction.
Both Thomas and Brennan say the B.C. government is overeager to move forward, due to current economic stresses in the province.
“The government is $2 billion in the hole,” Thomas says. “They’ve cut taxes for the wealthy and corporations and yet promised to balance the budget. At the same time, they’ve promised lavish Olympic Games for B.C. in 2010. Where are they going to get the money for that?”
A government debt chart shows British Columbia borrowed over $1 billion from April through June of this year alone. B.C.’s answer, Brennan suggests, is selling resource assets as quickly as possible.
“If this moves forward, we’re going to be asking people around the world if they want to contribute to the destruction of the Rocky Mountain ecosystem by supporting the Olympic Games in 2010,” Thomas threatens.
Whether or not any project does indeed move forward may depend on Montana, he says. Baucus has already stated that if B.C. allows drilling without further environmental assessment, “They are asking for a fight.”
“It all depends on how much Martz, Colin Powell, Rehberg, Burns and Baucus make a fuss,” Thomas says. “Canada can’t go around offending the U.S. any more than it has already. We didn’t go to war in Iraq, we’re screaming about getting our borders open for cattle again, our softwood lumber prices [hurt the U.S. market], there’s medical marijuana initiatives. Does Canada want to add another item to the agenda of conflict?”
Yet even with the specter of international action, the coal fields may be worth the risk to bidders, according to Michael Gatens, chairman of the Canadian Society for Unconventional Gas and owner of Calgary, Alberta’s MGV Energy.
“The price for natural gas is going up…and definitely has a lot more value than it had 10 years ago,” Gatens says. “It’s an industry with a very risk-tolerant mentality.”