Dirty dealings on the coalbed methane fields of Telkwa

For a brief moment the community of Telkwa thought it had reason to celebrate. In the face of rising opposition from the community Outrider Energy, a Calgary-based energy company, announced that it was withdrawing from its plans to develop coalbed methane in the Bulkley Valley. The unpopular tenure application had raised the ire of local residents and the Wet’suwet’en First Nation concerned about the impact of coalbed methane extraction on their land, water and quality of life.

Burns Cheadle, Outrider’s CEO, finally seemed to be living up to his promise not to proceed if the “majority of the local community” opposed the project. Unfortunately things are not quite as they seem.

With evidence mounting that the community of Telkwa wants little to do with coalbed methane extraction there seemed little choice for Outrider but to respect the communities wishes.  A November poll showed that 70% of residence felt that the risks of the project outweighed its potential benefits. A survey distributed by Citizens Concerned about Coal Bed Methane revealed that of the over 1400 respondents 97% opposed the project. Over 400 residents  also showed up on mass to public meetings, asking tough questions and getting little in the way of satisfactory answers.
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The main dissatisfaction however was not with Outrider Energy. A weak provincial regulatory regime turned Outrider’s commitments to proceed responsibly and respect the wishes and concerns of the community into hollow promises. Although Outrider promised to mitigate the environmental damage from toxic waste water through a process called of deep well reinjection (an unproven process) regulations don’t demand such measures and allow for the disposal of waste water directly into the rivers and streams.

Ultimately there was no one to hold Outrider to its promises. Furthermore the current laws allows tenures to be traded. Even if Outrider were to live up to its promises, there is no guarantee that the next guy would.

For the residents of Telkwa, and the Bulkley Valley this all equated to too much risk for too little benefit. The promise of 2 to 10 jobs doesn’t offset the potential threat to a salmon fishery that contributes $100 million to the regional economy, the threat to drinking water and the destruction of the rural landscape.

The community said no. Outrider pulled out. That should be the end of the story.

It is not. The provincial government has insisted that it has the right to grant coalbed methane tenures even in the face of overwhelming community opposition and a new proponent has come forward. Norwest Corporation now claims that is was always the principle proponent of the project.

Those who attended public meetings in Smithers may remember Geoff Jordan, Norwest’s Senior Vice President, being introduced as Outrider’s ‘technical consultant’. Norwest Corporation has in fact been there all along, taking no questions and making no promises.

Now in what looks like a classic bait and switch, Norwest who had engaged in no consultations, made no commitments, is suddenly the proponent.

The fact that the Outrider switcheroo doesn’t require Norwest to begin the consultation process again, illustrates the inadequacies of the public participation laws on oil and gas.   For the citizens of Bulkley Valley the tenure application process has turned into a shell game. Most thought that they had kept their eye on the tenure process and held the projects proponent to account. Guess again.

Despite the residents crying foul the provincial government seems happy to proceed with the tenure process as if nothing has happened. Perhaps they have been in on the game all along.

Residents are now wondering if the earnest talk from Outrider’s president Burns Cheadle was every anything more than an elaborate baiting operation to encourage then to accept the granting to the coalbed methane tenure. Norwest’s calls itself an international energy, mining and environmental consulting firm. Its expertise is as a technical consultant not as a project proponent and they are unlikely to be the ultimate tenure holders. Who is?

The shell game isn’t quite over yet. The community and the Wet’suwet’en First Nation have spotted a dirty game and are pushing for the government to halt the tenure process. The Province wants to play on.

Perhaps they have forgotten that the first rule in a confidence game is that you must gain peoples confidence. Once that’s lost, so is the game.