The Gas Beneath Their Feet

Coal bed methane and community resistance in BC

By Tyler McCreary

February 2007

“Years ago, coal bed methane was known only to coal miners and their canaries.”

Photo by Pat Moss

THE PICTURESQUE BULKLEY VALLEY, nestled in northwestern British Columbia, presents an idyllic image of rural life. In these lands, the Wet’suwet’en First Nation maintain their livelihoods and governance on their traditional territory, while nearby, settlers have flourished in agriculture, forestry, mining and tourism over the past hundred years. Divergent interests have split these constituencies in the past, but now Aboriginal and settler communities have found common cause against a proposal promoted by the provincial government: coal bed methane development.

Coal bed methane is a form of unconventional natural gas trapped in coal seams. Although it exists in different states, the methane is most often absorbed into the coal by high water pressure. When water is removed from a coal seam, lowering the pressure, the methane is released and tends to follow the water as it is pumped to the surface.

To extract the methane, numerous wells must be drilled into the coal deposit—-far more wells than are typically required for conventional gas development. In addition to the potential industrialization of the landscape, coal bed methane wells often produce large amounts of highly saline or toxic waste water that threatens local aquifers and watersheds.

In November 2006, representatives of the Wet’suwet’en and a group called Citizens Concerned About Coal Bed Methane travelled to Canada’s energy capital, Calgary, to declare their opposition to the proposal of two Calgary-based companies, Norwest Corporation and Outrider Energy, to explore the coal bed methane potential of the Telkwa coal field in the Bulkley Valley.

Dressed in traditional regalia, three Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs assembled at a Calgary hotel for a press conference to inform developers and the public that coal bed methane development on their land must stop. Following the press conference, the Chiefs went to the 27th-floor office of the Norwest Corporation to hand-deliver a written order for the company to cease and desist in its application for the Telkwa coal bed methane tenure.

Alphonse Gagnon, Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief of the Laksamshu Clan, sternly told the press, “We are very concerned about the impact to our water, to our fish and to [�] the Wet’suwet’en way of life.” According to Gagnon, development is proceeding too fast, and the Wet’suwet’en “don’t have the capacity to deal with all of the issues that are coming up”—- issues including proposed pipelines, new mining developments, fish farming, and forests plagued by a pine beetle infestation.

In a public meeting in the Wet’suwet’en community of Kyah Wiget (Moricetown), Burns Cheadle, Outrider Energy president, promised that his company would not proceed without First Nations approval. Facing strong Wet’suwet’en opposition, Outrider announced its abandonment of the project in early January of this year. In an interview with Briarpatch, Burns Cheadle attributed their decision “the high level of opposition in the community.” Since addressing community concerns would extend the project timeline, Outrider decided it was best to invest its money elsewhere. Thus, the decision to proceed has been relegated to the hands of Norwest.

Joseph Aiello, Norwest President, issued a press release January 8, 2007, stating that “Norwest will continue to participate in the tenure application process.” In January 2004, Norwest Corporation secured first rights to explore and develop coal bed methane in the Telkwa coalfield. Norwest, a global consulting firm, then approached Outrider, a small exploration and production firm specializing in unconventional energy resources, about executing the project. Since that time, Norwest had been the silent partner while Outrider spearheaded the project�s community engagement efforts. With Outrider’s withdrawal from the project, Norwest now faces an uphill battle against public opposition to coal bed methane development in the Bulkley Valley.

YEARS AGO, COAL BED METHANE was known only to coal miners and their canaries. Miners have long known of its presence in coal seams, as coal mine explosions have almost always been a result of the unintentional ignition of escaping methane. To mitigate this risk, coal miners of old would bring canaries underground to help them detect—-by the canary’s death—-dangerous methane levels. But as the price of methane has quadrupled in recent years, coal bed methane has shifted from a bane of energy extractors to a boon for the industry.

Nowhere is this shift clearer than Garfield County, Colorado. There are now more than 3,000 gas wells in Garfield—-one every 20 acres in some areas—-and gas companies plan to drill thousands more. Only five years ago this was a quiet Colorado Valley, but it now vibrates with the noise of non-stop industrial extraction.

Garfield County bears the marks of its methane-fueled prosperity. The constant drone of compressors is accented by the hum of traffic along the new roads that cut across the land. The pockmarks of three-acre dirt pads, holding condensate tanks and wells, further disfigure the landscape, while the scar-tissue of 300-wide swaths of forest cleared for underground pipelines remains unhealed. And across the wide valleys and mesas, drill rigs turn the skyline jagged. Residents complain about contamination of their water supplies and attribute various ailments to pollution, though no studies have been done to prove or disprove these allegations. This is the new land of corporate opportunity.

In Canada, experience with coal bed methane has been much more limited, only beginning to take off in late 2001. The bulk of the drilling has occurred in Alberta. Already, over 7,000 wells have been punched into the province, mostly in the densely populated farmland of the Calgary-Red Deer corridor.

Another 50,000 wells are expected in Alberta in the next two decades, and the potential for coal bed methane development also exists in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Nova Scotia. But exploratory wells and test holes in BC (75 had been drilled as of August 2006) have yielded only public outrage, not the resource bonanza the provincial government is convinced lies beneath the surface.

The Gordon Campbell government has been an avid promoter of the fledgling industry, slashing royalties and offering subsidies to encourage coal bed methane exploration and drilling. In a province suffering from ailing forestry and fishing industries, and with energy prices high and projected to go on rising, the provincial government is easily swayed by the lure of energy-sector development dollars.

But while the government fawns over oil and gas companies, community consultations seem only a superficial, if extensive, public relations exercise. The government hosted several days of workshops and two open-houses to promote development and attempt to assuage public concern.

The government’s one-sided approach to community engagement—-attempting to paternalistically educate rather than listen to residents—-has failed to mitigate concern. Instead, it has retrenched residents’ fears, as they perceive that the provincial government has made clear its intention to prioritize resource development over and above community concerns and environmental impacts. Crucial issues remain unresolved regarding land rights and the legally contentious question of who should hold the veto over development.

The Wet’suwet’en have never ceded their land to the Crown, nor have they ever abdicated their right to control development on their land. The Supreme Court of Canada has recognized a duty to consult Aboriginal peoples regarding development on their lands. As far as the provincial government is concerned, however, the legal imperative to consult Aboriginal communities does not entail Aboriginal authority to control or curtail development. In the words of local Liberal MLA, Dennis MacKay, Aboriginal people “do not hold a veto on development.”

The provincial government’s approach, rather, is to seek Aboriginal input and attempt to accommodate those concerns it deems reasonable. The Wet’suwet’en have expressed concerns that the timelines provided for consultations do not respect the need to engage traditional governance and the broader community. As former Wet’suwet’en Lands Manager Andy George Jr. has observed ruefully, “When they come with a binder saying we need your input in 120 days that’s not consultation, that’s dictation.” But under the colonial jurisdiction of the Canadian state, it is the provincial government and the courts that assert the right to determine what is �reasonable� and what constitutes a meaningful consultation.

Local property owners also contend that BC’s tenure system and property rights regime relegate them to the position of bystander to developments on their land. Because the landowners do not hold subsurface rights, farmers are powerless to stop companies from placing wells on their land.

It is the provincial government alone that claims the authority to approve or scuttle development. Typically, the government refers tenure requests to local governments, First Nations and other agencies for comment, but it is the government’s own Ministry of Energy that compiles this information and provides a recommendation to the Minister as to whether the tenure should be approved. The contentious decision over development of coal bed methane in the Bulkley Valley, however, will be made by the entire Provincial Cabinet, not just the Energy Minister. The referral process for the Telkwa proposal ended on November 1, 2006, but the Ministry has not indicated its recommendation and the government has not provided any timelines for its tenure decision.

There may be good reason for the government’s reluctance to meaningfully engage the community. Many residents have expressed worries that methane activity could damage rivers and ground water and industrialize their rural landscape. It is likely that the community would choose to block coal bed methane development if given the option.

A recent poll found that almost 70 percent of residents believed that the potential benefits of coal bed methane were not worth the potential risk to wild salmon and steelhead and another 60 percent asserted that the proposal posed an unacceptable risk to drinking water. A mere 32 percent thought government efforts to consult with community residents were adequate, and only three percent believed government consultations were more than adequate.

THE EFFECT OF COAL BED METHANE extraction on water quality is one of the Bulkley Valley community’s chief concerns. To extract the methane, companies pump water out, then compress the freed gas and pipe it to market. The extraction process has been known to lower the water table in an area and could pose a problem for wells. And the resulting waste water is often highly saline or toxic, posing significant disposal risks to local watersheds and drinking water supplies.

Residents fear that a government that aggressively promotes coal bed methane while deregulating the industry will fail to protect the local water system. Current regulations allow drilling operations to discharge up to 1,850 cubic metres of contaminated water a day into streams. The provincial government has enacted a code of practice to replace regulations that required operators to acquire pollution permits. This new code asks companies to regulate themselves and permits them to discharge water that is toxic to fish (as long as it kills less than half the test fish population over a four day test period in a sample of 100% effluent).

Coal bed methane development is an intensive and ecologically disruptive process. While a typical natural gas project sets a well every 640 acres, coal bed methane typically involves a well every 80 acres. In the United States, some projects have a well density of one well per 40 acres, and parts of Garfield County, Colorado have only 20 acres between the wells. Extensive networks of roads, pipelines and noisy compressors operating 24 hours a day are required to extract the methane and get it to market.

Development of coal bed methane elsewhere in BC has been stalled by the resistance of local communities. In 2003, the Union of BC Municipalities called for a province-wide moratorium on coal bed methane development until stronger regulations could be implemented. In the Kootenays last summer, resistance from the community and Fernie City Council led Shell to discontinue exploration. And in September 2006, the continued resistance of the Tahltan First Nation forced Shell to abandon its coal bed methane exploration for the second year.

Both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal residents want the Bulkley Valley declared off-limits to coal bed methane. “The BC government and the company have a responsibility to respect the voices of the people who have made their lives here,” said Lori Knorr, a local resident. “We must make choices about our Valley’s future, and we choose to keep it coal bed methane-free.”

Tyler McCreary is a contributing editor to Briarpatch and a member of the Making the Links Radio Collective,

Readers like you keep Briarpatch alive and thriving. Subscribe today to support fiercely independent journalism.