Thursday, September 20, 2007

Coalbed methane ups ante in B.C.-Montana mining fight

The big fight between Montana and B.C. over mining in the Flathead Valley is heating up again.
And this time, since coalbed methane is involved, the battle is likely really on.
It's a mistake to dismiss the dispute. Any kind of cross-border spat can get complicated and costly in a hurry. Just look at the big fight over the proposed power plant across the U.S. border from Abbotsford. The mining battle is already starting to get high-level attention in Washington - the U.S. State Department has complained; Canadian Ambassador Michael Wilson has been defending B.C.; Premier Gordon Campbell and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer have just exchanged letters on the issue. Now the whole dispute is threatening to get bigger, with the Americans complaining about possible coalbed methane development in the same area. That's even more of a hot button in Montana, in part because of the industry's poor record in the western U.S.
The starting point for all this is a proposed coal mine in the Kootenays about 30 kilometres from the U.S. border. The B.C. government already barred the owner, Cline Mining, from developing a coal property closer to the U.S. It thinks this one is OK.
But Montana's politicians are united in opposition. The mine would be in the headwaters of the Flathead River, which forms the border of Glacier National Park.
There are lots of political angles. The loudest opponent is Max 'Blame Canada' Baucus, a long-time Democratic senator who was a hawk in the softwood lumber dispute.
For any politician, it's a great opportunity to score painless points by talking tough about a foreign country and looking all pro-environment. But the Montana politicians - backed by a pretty sophisticated environmental movement - have already started to turn the spotlight on B.C. environmental approval standards. They note, for example, that the mining operation wouldn't be allowed near the river within Montana. (They don't note that the state is encouraging coal mining and coalbed methane in other areas.) The other big advantage the Montanans have is support from within B.C. And that's going to get much stronger once more people in the province are aware of the interest in coalbed methane.
The provincial is keen on coalbed methane development and has sold more than $25 million worth of drilling rights in the last five years. So far, there are no commercial developments.
Coalbed methane is natural gas trapped in cracks in coal seams and the rocks around them.
It's a good clean fuel. But there's a catch. The cracks also often hold water, sometimes contaminate, and it has to be pumped out and disposed of as part of the process. The industry has left some big messes in its wake. Now British Petroleum wants to start drilling test wells in the Crowsnest coal field next year, an area that includes the upper Flathead. The company believes the waste water can be re-injected into the ground. The Montana politicians are skeptical, and a lot of people in the region will be too. Coalbed methane is already an issue. Shell's effort to drill test wells for coalbed methane in the Klappan Valley was stalled by a First Nations blockade this month. The company applied for an injunction, but abandoned the effort. Wisely, perhaps. As the blockade continued, eight environmental groups spent $20,000 on an ad in the European edition of the Financial Times condemning Shell's plans. The ad referred to the valley as the Sacred Headwaters, source of the Nass, Stikine and Skeena rivers. Shell was portrayed as the despoiler of one of the world's great wildernesses. It's effective stuff. BP can expect a similar reaction, except with a U.S. protest thrown in. Baucus promises ""a massive and unpleasant fight from Montana that will end badly." There is actually a reasonable case that coalbed methane can be produced safely. But the government hasn't been able to make it. And it will get tougher now that the battle has gone international.
Footnote: There's coalbed methane around much of the province. Quinsam Coal and Cornerstone Gas plan to drill test wells in Campbell River as early as this fall, hoping coal fields in the area produce methane.

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