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Fracking ban in Sacred Headwaters set to expire Dec. 18

A moratorium on a large coal bed methane project in northern B.C. is about to expire. The moratorium has prevented Shell Canada from conducting "any oil and gas activity or related activity" in the Sacred Headwaters project since December 2008, according to the original Order in Council.

While First Nations, environmental groups, and the provincial NDP are calling for the moratorium to be extended, negotiations around the future of the area between Shell, First Nations and local stakeholders are ongoing, a spokesperson for the B.C. Ministry of Energy, Mines, and Natural Resources confirmed.

The spokesperson would not comment on the nature of the discussions, saying that further details would be made available when an agreement is reached.

The project is located in Tahltan First Nation territory. Anita McPhee, president of the Tahltan Central Council, also would not comment on any negotiations with the province, but said she is determined to protect the Sacred Headwaters.

"We're not going to stop until there is permanent protection in the Klappan."

The Klappan, as the Sacred Headwaters basin is sometimes known, is located at the head of the Skeena, Stikine, and Nass rivers.

The BC NDP recently weighed in on the issue.

"Coal bed methane development could see hundreds of gas wells drilled in these pristine river headwaters, along with construction of hundreds of roads and pipelines to support them," said NDP mining critic Doug Donaldson in a recent email to supporters. "It could contaminate groundwater and river water downstream, and put at risk significant wild salmon spawning beds."

The original government document that ordered the moratorium has provisions for Shell to have resumed operations two years after the moratorium was issued, as early as 2010. This was on the conditions that the company first conduct an assessment of the impact the operation would have on water quality, that First Nations and other local communities be provided with sufficient information on coal bed methane extraction, and that this all be done to the satisfaction of the minister.

Karen Tam Wu, who is in charge of the advocacy group Forest Ethics' campaign to prevent Shell from developing the natural gas deposit in the region, says she is optimistic about the outcome of the ongoing discussions.

"I've heard the government is going to come down on the right side of the fence on this," she explains. "I'm holding my breath and my fingers are crossed."

On Friday morning the Senate approved Bill C-45, the omnibus bill, which included provisions to eliminate the Hazardous Materials Information Review Commission. This was the body responsible for, among other things, monitoring chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing operations like the Shell project in the Sacred Headwaters.

Disclosure of the composition of the chemicals used in fracking is mandatory in B.C. as of April 1, 2012, and the registry is publicly available. However, many chemicals can be protected as trade secrets.

The HMIRC's responsibilities will be transferred to Health Canada, which in April announced that it would be cutting 840 jobs.

Jimmy Thomson is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

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