Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Now Obama is fighting B.C. over mining

Barack Obama is not even elected president yet, and he's already picking on B.C.
It didn't get much attention, but Obama served notice that if he's elected, he'll lend his support to ban mining in the Flathead Valley in southeastern B.C.
The dispute has been bouncing in and out of the headlines since 2003, especially in Montana.
It has already proved awkward for the provincial government.
In mid-2004, Energy Minister Richard Neufeld cancelled Cline Mining's permit for a planned open pit coal mine in the Flathead, citing environmental concerns and pressure from Montana. The company's share price fell 50 per cent.
And earlier this year, BP America cancelled plans for coalbed methane development in the Flathead after taking heat from Montana interests, including powerful U.S. Senator Max Baucus.
But the battle isn't over, and Obama has signed on to the other side.
Cline has another property in the Flathead Valley, farther from the border. Montana environmentalists - and most of the main politicians - are opposed to a coal mine proposed for that site as well.
And, to add a complication to the mix, BP America still hopes to develop coalbed methane in the Elk Valley, just north of the Flathead.
The series of disputes is putting the government in a bad spot. The pressure from Montana - on the province and the companies - is significant. And a lot of people in the Kootenays support protection of the Flathead.
But on the other side, other residents aren't opposed to more mining, which provides excellent jobs.
The province wants the investment and future royalties from coalbed methane. BP said that if it had developed both the Flathead and Elk Valley properties, the investment would have been about $3 billion. The government would get $2 billion in royalties and $2 billion in corporate taxes over the life of the project, the company said.
And at some point, the B.C. government is going to have to decide how much say it will give U.S. interests on land-use decisions within the province.
The Montana crew has a legitimate interest in the future of the Flathead Valley on our side of the border (as B.C. took a legitimate interest in the air quality impact of a proposed power plant just across the border from Sumas).
The Flathead River is a prized asset in Montana. It forms the border of the U.S. Glacier National Park and offers fishing and recreational opportunities. It's that rare thing - an accessible wild river.
The case for being concerned about development in its headwaters is pretty strong.
But how far should that interest go? By taking aim at BP's coalbed plans for the Elk Valley, Baucus and the other U.S. interests are claiming influence on an area 60 kms or more from the border. And the Elk River flows into the Kootenay. It flows into Montana, where it is dammed to create a lake - hardly a wild river.
Bill Bennett is the Liberal MLA from the region and was mines minister until he resigned after a nasty e-mail exchange with a constituent.
He offered a good analysis of where B.C. should draw the line during the just-ended legislative session.
Bennett drew a clear line between the Elk and Flathead Valleys.
The Elk has been home to mining and logging for more than a century, he noted. It's not some pristine wilderness. The Flathead, while there has been logging and recreational use, hasn't been developed in the same way.
Bennett suggested that, at least for now, the status quo should prevail in the Flathead. His constituents don't want to see coal mining in the valley.
But he'd allow more mining and coalbed methane development in the Elk Valley, giving BP a chance to show how clean its operations can be.
It seems a reasonable compromise.
I wonder what Obama will say.
Footnote: Bennett might have a chance to play a larger role. A cabinet shuffle is expected in next few weeks as the premier moves out people like Claude Richmond and Carole Taylor who have said they won't run in 2009. Bennett would be a good addition, but he might be too independent for Gordon Campbell's taste or the party might decide another Liberal needs the profile more.

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