By Lloyd Dolha
Shell Canada plans to continue working in remote Klappan Valley in disregard of two public calls for the Dutch-owned oil company to cease its pursuit of coal bed methane in northwestern British Columbia. A spokesperson for Shell Canada, Larry Lalonde said in an interview, “Although we are pausing our drilling plans, we are continuing some exploration activity” that includes environmental studies involving wildlife, fish, and surface water sampling. Shell’s decision to remain in Klappan Valley flies in the face of two influential resolutions passed in late September.
On Friday, September 26th, the First Nations Summit called for a 10-year moratorium on coal bed methane drilling in the province. “The coal bed methane industry is infringing on aboriginal title and rights all over British Columbia,” Wet’suwet’en executive director Debbie Pierre said in a press release. “Our wildlife and wild salmon are threatened, and we are calling on Gordon Campbell to halt all drilling until we have a better approvals system in place.”
The resolution states that coal-bed methane extraction “has caused significant harm to water, wildlife and rural economies” in other jurisdictions in North America. It notes that coal-bed methane projects are currently proposed in the Sacred Headwaters area, in the Telkwa coalfield, and near the cities of Fernie, Princeton, and Hudson’s Hope. “The areas of B.C. in which coal-bed methane development is proposed are areas of culturally, economically, and ecologically significant fish and wildlife populations, including three of North America’s most important wild salmon runs,” the resolution states. B.C. “does not consider cumulative regional impacts, the interests of downstream communities or meet the Crown’s obligation to consult and accommodate aboriginal title and rights” in assessing coal-bed methane projects. It calls for a moratorium in order to allow British Columbia to develop more rigorous regulations. After that is done, the province should proceed only with coal-bed methane development “in areas where it does not infringe aboriginal title and rights.”
The day before the First Nations Summit, the Union of British Columbia Municipalities asked the province to suspend Shell’s work in the Klappan Valley until “the majority of residents in the region are satisfied that such development does not jeopardize their values and existing economic activities.” Shell wants to drill 1,000 wells to extract coal-bed methane gas, and Fortune wants to mine 123 million tonnes of high-grade metallurgical coal. But first, they need the Tahltan’s approval. Opponents to coal bed methane development argue that the gas, which is found buried between coal seams deep within the earth, carries too many environmental risks and too few regulatory obligations. Previous attempts at coal bed methane exploration elsewhere in the province have come to naught, mainly due to public opposition.
The Sacred Headwaters, named because three major salmon rivers (the Skeena, Nass, and Stikine) were born there, has become a symbol of wider conflicts in B.C. between First Nations and resource companies. Newly elected head of the Tahltan Central Council Annita McPhee said that before dealing with any proposed mines the tribal council must first find a way for everyone to express their views. “We are in the process of developing a decision-making protocol for resource development in our territory so our people can make an informed decision,” she said. McPhee also said the Tahltan Heritage Resource and Environmental Assessment Team is doing their own environmental assessment of the project, and the central council is developing its own resource development policy. “We’re very progressive when it comes to sustainable development practices,” she said.
Shell was granted tenure to explore for coal bed methane in the Klappan Valley in 2004 and drilled three test walls that year. In 2006, local residents set up a blockade on the access road into the area, resulting in the arrest of Tahltan elders. After spending millions to upgrade an abandoned provincial rail bed that serves as the only road into the Klappan, Shell Canada announced in August that it would voluntarily suspend drilling in the area while it consults with First Nations. “Essentially, that’s to allow for us to have dialogue with the newly elected members of the Tahltan First Nation,” Lalonde said. “We’re also doing it to continue our dialogue with other First Nations, municipalities, environmental groups, and other people who are interested from the region.”
There are eight mining projects proposed along Highway 37, and a recent study projected that they could generate $3.5-billion in capital investments, create 2,000 jobs, and result in more than $300-million in annual revenues.