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Clash over Coalbed Methane

Northern towns rebuff push by government. Special report.

Larissa Ardis 14 Nov

Larissa Ardis is a freelance writer based in Smithers, B.C.

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Smithers protest against mining proposal, Oct. 21. Photo L. Ardis.

For months people around Telkwa and Smithers have been hearing from their government and a Calgary company that coalbed methane (CBM) development in their area would be a good thing for them and for British Columbia.

But the verdict is in -- and most people in the area firmly disagree, according to a study released last week. The failure of the B.C. government's "community engagement" process of workshops to win over the two north-central B.C. communities is another blow to the province's efforts to promote the controversial extraction method as a profitable source of energy. Foes of coalbed methane activity say it badly pollutes and degrades the landscape.

According to the results of a telephone survey conducted late in October, almost 70 per cent of Telkwa and Smithers area residents agree "the potential benefits of coalbed methane are not worth the potential risk to wild salmon and steelhead."

The polling firm Synovate collected opinions on a B.C. government-promoted proposal by Calgary-based Outrider Energy Ltd. That company is hoping to acquire, just outside of Telkwa, a tenure: time-limited ownership of rights to explore, develop and ultimately produce coalbed methane from the area's underground coal seams.

At 268 square kilometres, Outrider's proposed tenure area is about the combined area of Vancouver, West Vancouver, and North Vancouver. Under B.C. law, owners of more than 40 private properties within the proposed tenure area have no right to refuse CBM-related drilling, construction or extraction on their lands.

The Synovate research revealed that 60 per cent of respondents agreed that the CBM proposal poses an unacceptable risk to drinking water, 68 per cent of residents disagree that government should go ahead with the development if it believes it's in the entire province's best interest, and 71 per cent of residents with an opinion are opposed to coalbed methane.

'Science is there'

"These results show strong opposition to the proposed project," concludes Pat Moss, executive director of the Northwest Institute for Bioregional Research, the Smithers-based non-profit that paid for the survey. "Coalbed methane is widely known amongst residents as being a risky industry with a poor track record and few benefits."

The Synovate findings contradict B.C. Liberal Bulkley Valley-Stikine MLA Dennis MacKay, who in media reports has repeatedly characterized CBM opponents as an ill-informed vocal minority who do not reflect his constituents. In a recent interview with The Tyee, he emphasized that the "science is there to allow us to do what we need to do, to ensure that the people of this province continue to have an energy source."

But the same survey results are welcomed by a citizens' group, formed here last June, whose own informal polling had already found widespread opposition among locals.

June is when several Telkwa residents became aware of the government's 60-day "tenure referral" process, which offered First Nations and local governments an opportunity to communicate their concerns about the Outrider proposal to the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources. These concerns are to be summarized by the ministry in a report and ultimately presented to cabinet -- which will have the final say in whether, and how, the Outrider tenure will be approved.

Tenure referral was to include an unprecedented, government-led "community engagement" process -- consisting mainly of a handful of government-hosted workshops for stakeholders and public open houses.

Troubles in U.S.

The coalbed methane industry and regulatory environment is in its infancy in Canada. But in the U.S., where it is a well-established industry in places like Wyoming, CBM-associated problems are well documented:

A CBC-TV News documentary, produced in 2003, examined CBM in Alberta, where more than 6,000 experimental wells have been drilled. It told the story of farmers near Strathmore struggling with noise pollution, degraded landscapes and land-use conflicts. According to the documentary, more than 40 landowners' groups had formed throughout the province in response to burgeoning CBM development in Alberta.

In May 2006, the Edmonton Journal and Vue Weekly magazine described farmers in Wetaskawin, forced to haul water after their wells became contaminated by methane and their cattle bloated and sick. In September 2006, Canadian Business Magazine reported that some residents near Rosebud, Alberta are finding their water undrinkable, methane-contaminated to the point where it can actually be ignited, after a comprehensive coalbed methane drilling program began nearby.

The citizens' group also learned that B.C.'s new CBM regulatory scheme has been analyzed and soundly rapped by environmental organizations whose expertise on energy policy is routinely sought out by government.

Local group formed

As local interest snowballed, the group began calling itself Citizens Concerned About CBM. In July, thanks largely to a request by the Wet'suwet'en First Nation, the Citizens group sought and obtained an extension of the referral process to Nov. 1.

Since June, the Citizens have mobilized hundreds by knocking on doors, launching a website, hosting a packed public information forum on CBM and staging an Oct. 21 public demonstration on Smithers's Main Street, which was attended by close to 400 people.

The group's supporters include First Nations, biologists, foresters, fishermen, ecotourism business operators, multi-generation ranchers and farmers, and the former chair of B.C.'s human rights commission.

They are concerned that CBM development poses risks not only to public assets, like water, fish habitat and viewscapes, but to private property. Under B.C. law, landowners simply cannot refuse government-approved CBM-related activities on their private property.

MLA MacKay seemed unclear on the legal rights of landowners wanting to refuse drilling on their land.

"I thought when I bought my property and pay tax, I should have rights to it," he told The Tyee. He speculated that developers may be able to access his land through diagonal, underground drilling, "but I should have the right to refuse drilling on my property."

When presented with the reality that landowners in B.C. do not enjoy this right, and have recently found themselves embroiled in bitter disputes in Vernon and Kamloops over subsurface rights, he told The Tyee he could argue with the minister about this. "But I'm only one voice in 79," he said of his majority government.

The B.C. Liberals are offering significant tax-breaks to woo CBM developers to B.C.

'Most contentious issue'

On Oct. 21, MacKay's constituency office was targeted by some 400 protestors who left at the locked door painted signs bearing slogans such as, "We don't want to be CBM guinea pigs." MacKay complained to the Smithers Interior News that taxpayer-funded time was required to remove the mess.

MacKay explained to The Tyee why he left a Citizens-hosted forum midway through: in his view, the audience "had already made up their minds" about CBM.

"I wish people would sit back and listen to what [CBM proponents] are saying so we can do what's necessary," he said.

On Nov. 8, MacKay opened his office for scheduled appointments to address local "anxiety" about CBM. As with earlier government events, he planned to invite officials from the Energy Ministry and the Oil and Gas Commission to answer technical questions in smaller groups and a "more conducive" atmosphere.

NDP Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Nathan Cullen said he was "dumbfounded" to hear Dennis MacKay say he is not hearing a strong anti-CBM message from constituents.

"I would be extremely worried if I were him, because this is the most contentious issue in our region right now and people are expressing a lot of concern," said Cullen.

New village stance

Telkwa's village council has changed its own stance on CBM. After digesting CBM-related cautions from not only the Citizens group, but the West Coast Environmental Law Association, the Pembina Institute, the mayor of Fernie and a farmer from Hudson's Hope, they are proceeding carefully.

Those cautions were reflected in a document prepared by the village of Telkwa and recently submitted to the Energy Ministry for the tenure referral process.

That document set out a long list of conditions to be attached to any awarded CBM tenure -- such as a full prior environmental assessment, mechanisms for ongoing community input into any CBM development, pre-set environmental standards determined from baseline data which are made accessible to the community, regular monitoring to ensure proponents meet those standards, effective mechanisms of enforcement, no drilling on private land without permission of the landowner, and a reclamation account to cover costs of any environmental damages.

"We haven't said we support [the CBM proposal] or not," Mayor Sharon Hartwell said. "We're supportive of the [tenure referral and community engagement] process. If we're going to have any kind of development in our area, we need to be part of that process, rather than let it steamroll over top of us."

But looming over this debate over tenure applications is a question important to many other British Columbians. Can communities say "no thanks" to the entrance of a company with no history of CBM development, and an industry with a spotty track record and few demonstrated local benefits, until they are satisfied that appropriate environmental and regulatory safeguards are in place?

Yvette Wells, the assistant deputy minister for the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum, who oversaw community engagement in Telkwa and Smithers, made clear that this question is not up for debate.

"Lots of times people want to talk about not developing the resources, and that is not something we can deal with through a community engagement process," she told The Tyee.

'Engagement' rapped

The government-sponsored workshops and open houses were criticized for being poorly attended, being held mostly during business hours, and offering a one-sidedly positive picture of CBM development. According to the Synovate survey, 58 per cent of residents considered the B.C. government's community engagement process to be less than adequate. Lori Knorr, a landowner with property inside the proposed tenure area, who engaged fully in the government-hosted events, concluded: "I wouldn't call this 'community engagement.' I'd call it: 'the Ministry of Energy and Mines working on behalf of the corporation to sell us CBM.'"

Wells maintains that the community engagement process was successful. Outrider President Burns Cheadle, speaking from his Calgary office, said he applauds the Citizens group for "exercising their democratic rights."

But Cheadle also expressed surprise that "a lot of [people] feel that the community has the right to accept or reject a project...I know the government sees that very differently."

But NDP MP Cullen sees it quite differently. "That decision should rest with the people of the Bulkley Valley -- full stop," he says.

Whatever the B.C. government decides, it can't say later it was unaware of local feeling. Ivan Thomson, a director of the Northwest Institute, says his group commissioned the Synovate survey "because it became clear that decision-makers were getting an incorrect message, from their own people, that Telkwa and Smithers residents support CBM here."

Further reading on Coalbed Methane:


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