Thursday, July 21, 2005

Montana poses big threat to B.C. energy development plans

VICTORIA - Some time in the next several weeks Premier Gordon Campbell hopes to sit down with Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and head off a damaging cross-border battle over a Kootenay coal mine.
The battle over the mine has been quietly - mostly - going on for about 18 months. And so far, the B.C. government has been unsuccessful in managing the dispute, which is bad news for people looking for coal or coalbed methane development in the region.
It’s a tricky problem, politically complicated on both sides of the border. The issue is a pretty small open-pit coal mine planned by Cline Mining for a site about 30 kms from the U.S. border. A lot of Montanans - from environmentalists to the pro-development governor - are worried about the mine. They fear that it will put the headwaters of the critical Flathead River - a big wilderness symbol for Montanans - at risk of pollution.
B.C.’s response has been, basically, butt out, we know what we’re doing and it’s our province. And anyway, the government has maintained, it’s early days and there might not be a mine.
That last claim is one of the things making Montanans nervous.
Cline says it’s spending $1.8 million this year drilling 51 test holes, building a seven-km road and taking out 90 tonnes of coal to send to steel mills around the world. The company’s annual report suggests mine development could be mostly completed by the end of next year.
Which has left some Montanans - like Schweitzer - worried that the B.C. government isn’t providing all the information about the project.
Mostly the B.C. government has reacted with irritation to the concerns. MLA Bill Bennett, now junior mining minister, even got into a heated debate with Montana Senator Max “Blame Canada” Baucus in Fernie over the project.
The reaction is understandable. Schweitzer, for example, is opposing the Kootenay mine while at the same time pushing a plan to develop new coal mines in Montana, along with new refineries to turn the coal into oil.
But B.C. has often seemed needlessly belligerent, and hasn’t answered reasonable questions.
The politics are complicated. Alongside their pragmatic concerns about the mine, Montana politicians know it’s always popular to oppose a potential polluter in adjacent country. (As proved by the battle against the SE2 project across the U.S. border from Sumas.)
The last thing British Columbia need is yet another cross-border dispute to add to the long list of Canada-U.S. issues. Schweitzer and Baucus have both pushed the Bush administration to oppose the current plans for the mine. The U.S. government position - supported by Montana’s governor and senators - is that unless B.C. reaches an agreement with Montana, the dispute should be sent to an International Joint Commission - a long, slow process.
The consequences of U.S. pressure are significant. Energy Minister Richard Neufeld denied approve for another mine Cline planned, closer to the border, in part because of U.S. opposition. (The company says it still hopes eventually to develop the mine.) An auction of coalbed methane rights in the area last year drew no bids, and uncertainty about U.S. opposition to development was one of the factors that kept the companies away.
And opposition from Montana is going to be a factor as B.C. tries to open the federally controlled Dominion Coal Block for exploration. The 50,000-acre parcel is just north of Cline’s proposed mine.
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister John van Dongen is planning a Montana visit, hoping to spend several days finding out about their concerns and talking about B.C.’s position.
But Campbell has the best opportunity to at least reduce the strength of the U.S. opposition. The meeting with Schweitzer could be an important step.
It doesn’t really matter if the concern in Montana is legitimate. If the B.C. government doesn’t reassure at least some of the critics, then plans for mine and methane development in the region face big hurdles, and long delays.
Footnote: The development opponents in Montana have already begun linking up with Kootenay residents opposed to mining and coalbed methane development, another headache for the B.C. government. The position taken by the NDP - which won three of four Kootenay seats in May - will be important in this debate.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I work with Wildsight, one of the Kootenay groups that Mr. Willcocks suggests have been courted by the anti-development forces from Montana. The reality in the East Kootenay is that we have been vocal with our concernes over poorly planned energy development schemes in our region. We are uncertain of the provincial government's commitment to stewardship of our natural resources. B.C.'s black and white two zone mining policy might provide certainty to businesses but at what cost to communities?

There is widespread concern here in the East Kootenay with both coalbed methane and coal mine proposals. Community members recognize that we live in a special place in the world that continues to be blessed with incredible wilderness. A broad spectrum of British Columbians are calling for conservation based on science. We want to protect our natural heritage. We are working together with scientists and all interested parties to improve our understanding of the ecological sensitivities in our region. We have widespread agreement that more baseline data collection is needed for the entire region before more large scale resource extraction should proceed.

Dozens of groups and governments, including the Union of British Columbia Municipalities are calling for a moratorium on coalbed methane drilling until meaningful consultation is conducted province wide and improved regulations are enacted. One quarter of the worlds steelmaking coal is mined in this region already. When faced with proposals for more giant open pit mines and thousands of drilling sites we have to ask the question how much is enough? In fact our own MLA Minister Bill Bennett has asked the same question in a letter he wrote to local groups concerned about Cline's mining proposals.

Our neighbours to the south have well founded concerns. It is our hope that we can all work together and make space for nature in this region.