A coalition of citizens’ groups in British Columbia (BC) has called for a time-out on all coalbed methane (CBM) drilling in the province until safety and environmental issues are more thoroughly addressed.

Provincial officials in early December approved BP Canada’s Mist Mountain CBM project, which is planned near Fernie in the East Kootenay region (see Daily GPI, Jan. 28). The tenure approval granted BP Canada the Crown petroleum and natural gas rights to parts of the Crowsnest Coalfield, excluding the Flathead River Basin watershed, which U.S. environmental groups opposed. The decision allows — but does not require — BP Canada to apply to the BC Oil and Gas Commission for the rights to access, explore and potentially develop the specific areas.

Following the province’s approval, Citizens Concerned About Coalbed Methane in turn launched a campaign to “restore public confidence” in the approval process for energy projects. The group is not opposed to oil and gas drilling, but it wants assurances that the province has an adequate plan to protect the environment, said spokesman Ted Ralfe. Among other things, the coalition wants the province to enact an action plan to allow communities to have a say in where and how CBM projects proceed.

“What we are saying is that in order to do it properly, there has to be a balance between development and wildlife,” Ralfe said. “If you destroy the attractiveness of this area, then what’s that worth?”

BC’s Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition also wants more safeguards, said Executive Director Shannon McPhail.

“Our goal is to better the investment climate by making sure we have sound regulations and less problems with communities dealing with this,” McPhail said. “Everywhere that coalbed methane has been presented, it’s been met with serious opposition. We’re trying to put things in place so that doesn’t happen.”

The environmental uprising in British Columbia is not the first to oppose BP Canada’s plans. U.S. Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) opposes the project because he thinks it will negatively impact water quality and wildlife habitat south of the border, specifically in Glacier National Park, which extends to the BC border. Dave Hadden, president of the Flathead Coalition in Montana, said the project will damage U.S. habitat, and he said the United States would see “immediate impacts” to large and mid-size carnivores.

The Flathead Coalition, a transboundary alliance of stakeholders and environmental groups, met with BP Canada in early December and asked the company to delay the Mist Mountain project pending more analysis.

However, even with the tenure approval, BP Canada has not decided whether to proceed with the Mist Mountain project.

“We will be reviewing the details of the tenure decision,” a BP spokesperson said. “We do not have any plans at this time for drilling, but will continue our environmental studies and consultation program in 2009.”

BP Canada noted that the activities associated with Mist Mountain proposal “are subject to regulation by provincial agencies such as the BC Oil and Gas Commission and guided by policies outlined in the BC Energy Plan, which calls for the best coalbed gas practices in North America. Provincial ministries such as Environment, and Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources also guide our activities. Regulation by federal agencies may apply in some circumstances as well.”

BP Canada now holds provincial permits that would enable it to conduct water and fisheries testing, as well as apply for a geophysical permit for aerial surveys of the proposed Mist Mountain project area. In addition, the producer holds a permit for surface access in the Flathead area related to its environmental studies. “We have not submitted any applications for exploratory drilling permits at this time,” BP Canada stated.

The Mist Mountain project is not the only one facing opposition. On the same day that provincial officials tentatively approved BP’s proposal, they placed a two-year moratorium on Shell Canada’s CBM proposal for the Klappan area of northwestern BC.

The Klappan CBM Exploration Program was awarded tenure in 2004 by the province. However, the project has been criticized by First Nations and other area stakeholders, and Shell Canada agreed to halt its exploration activity and carry out more discussions with First Nations and the community.

“Government is facilitating this by specifying no activity for two years,” said BC Energy Minister Richard Neufeld. “I commend both Shell Canada for showing leadership in making this decision and the Tahltan [First Nation], who have expressed their concerns and their interest in having more information.”

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