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Angry BC Chiefs Confront Calgary Corporate Honchos

Demand end to coalbed methane plans.

By Larissa Ardis 24 Nov 2006 | TheTyee.ca

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

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At Norwest Corporation, from left: Chief Madeek (Jeff Brown), Chief Woos (Roy Morris), and Chief Kloum Khun (Alphonse Gagnon). Photo Taylor Bachrach.

A trio of native leaders left the province to strike a blow against the B.C. government's push to promote coalbed methane (CBM) development in northwest B.C.

The hereditary chiefs from the Wet'suwet'en Nation travelled to Calgary to hand-deliver a message to Norwest Corporation and Outrider Energy Ltd., the two Calgary firms that have partnered on a controversial proposal to acquire a tenure to explore and develop CBM in the Telkwa/Smithers area.

"The Wet'suwet'en Nation opposes the granting of the tenure for this project because of the risk coalbed methane development poses to the lands and waters of their traditional territory, which is the subject of a land claim," said Wet'suwet'en hereditary chief Alphonse Gagnon.

Sporting full traditional regalia, the chiefs assembled at a Calgary hotel for a press conference that included ceremonial drumming and a traditional song about Wet'suwet'en lands. They then went across the street, to the 27th-floor office of Norwest Corporation, to hand the company president a written order to cease and desist its application for the CBM tenure.

The chiefs were accompanied by two members of Citizens Concerned About Coalbed Methane (CCCBM), a group that formed in response to a Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources-led process to consider the tenure application.

Poll: broad opposition

"There is broad-based opposition to this project amongst Bulkley Valley residents," said Greg Brown, a CCCBM member who was present. He cited a poll released two weeks ago by global research firm Synovate. It found that 70 per cent of Bulkley Valley residents feel the potential risks to salmon and steelhead are not worth the potential benefits of coalbed methane.

"The coalbed methane industry has a bad track record and B.C.'s regulations are inadequate to protect our economy, lifestyle and rural landscape," Brown continued.

Both the Wet'suwet'en chiefs and the CCCBM say Outrider Energy is reneging on promises made during meetings in September. At that time, Outrider President Burns Cheadle publicly assured the Wet'suwet'en that the CBM project would not proceed without the First Nation's support.

But in a Nov. 17 response to a letter from Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs expressing unanimous opposition to the project, Cheadle indicated his firm's business partner Norwest had voiced no plans to withdraw its tenure proposal -- and that Outrider would continue to be involved.

"We are here today to reaffirm our opposition, remind [Cheadle] of his promise and request that he discontinue this project," said Chief Gagnon.

According to Gagnon, Cheadle's refusal to honour his promise makes the Wet'suwet'en question all promises made by Outrider representatives during public and stakeholder meetings.

"If they're going to do that, what else are they going to do to acquire this tenure?" he asked The Tyee. "I don't believe they're acting in good faith, and I don't trust them anymore."

Political test case for BC?

CCCBM spokesperson Merran Smith believes many are watching the Norwest/Outrider CBM tenure decision closely. Considering the Liberals' push to bring the industry to B.C., a sustained government-led effort to convince Bulkley Valley residents to welcome the development, and the fact that an awarded tenure could open the door to the first commercial production of CBM in B.C., Smith says this region is a political test case.

"This is not an issue that just affects two little outback B.C. towns," Smith told The Tyee. "Sooner or later, every British Columbian will face this question: can communities reject inappropriate energy development?"

Smith says the Bulkley Valley would enthusiastically welcome energy development if it involved clean sources such as wind and geothermal energy.

The Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources is concluding its tenure referral process and forwarding the Norwest/Outrider proposal to cabinet. A cabinet decision, on whether to award the tenure and under what conditions, is expected in December.

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