Coalbed methane alarm in Bulkley Valley

By a member of Citizens Concerned About CoalBed Methane

An old farmer saying cautions against buying “a pig in a poke.” Itsorigin dates back to when market traders would offer to sell you apiglet in a “poke,” or sack. If you didn’t look in the sack, you mightlater discover an unpleasant surprise.

Yet, this is preciselywhat residents of the community of Telkwa, BC are being asked to dowith Calgary-based Outrider Energy’s controversial plan to developcoalbed methane in their back yard-a project most local residents knowlittle about.

There are many reasons to be cautious inevaluating Outrider’s plans. Across North America, coalbed methanedevelopment has a bad reputation. In Wyoming, the coalbed methaneindustry has run roughshod over farming families and ranchers,destroying water supplies, endangering people’s health, and leaving alandscape scarred with roads, well sites and pipelines.

WhenAlberta began exploiting coalbed methane, farmers and ranchers weretold the Wyoming scenario would be avoided. Yet, in the absence ofstrong regulations, these same problems are now occurring: methaneseeping into drinking water; toxic waste water being dumped into lakesand rivers and loud compressor stations running 24-hours-a-day nearpeople’s houses.

Another reason Telkwa residents should becautious is that Outrider is a new company with no  track record. As astart-up company, it has no coalbed methane projects on the ground, soit can’t point to evidence of its practices.

Finally, BC’sregulations are too weak to protect the local water supply, farmlandand the Skeena’s world-renowned salmon runs from the project’spotential impacts.

Even the Union of BC Municipalities hasrecognized the risks of CBM. In 2003, the UBCM passed a resolutioncalling for a province-wide coalbed methane moratorium until strongerregulations were implemented.

The impacts of coalbed methane arereal; local concerns should not be taken lightly. They’re part of thereason that to date no other community in BC has approved a coalbedmethane project.

Local concerns need to be addressed beforeinitial tenure is approved-which the BC government hopes to do thiscoming fall. This pre-tenure period is the only real opportunity thelocal community has to provide feedback on the project as a whole. Itis also the community’s best chance to raise the bar and ensure propersafeguards are attached to the tenure as conditions. Or, if peopleperceive the risks outweigh the benefits, it is the community’s onlychance to say “No.”

Once the tenure is awarded, the Ministry ofEnergy and Mines passes oversight to the Oil and Gas Commission (OGC),which is funded by the oil and gas industry (an adage about the foxguarding the chicken coop springs to mind). The OGC approvesdevelopment activities on a “well-by-well” basis, constrained only byBC’s inadequate regulations. Once the project gets this far, it’sbusiness as usual.

Which brings us back to the “pig in a poke.”While government is hurrying along the tenure process, the details ofthe Telkwa project aren’t being shared with the community.

Howmany wells are being proposed? How many local jobs will be created?Will re-injection of wastewater be feasible? How will cumulativeimpacts be dealt with? What will the maximum number of wells perhectare be?

Both the government and Outrider Energy say theycan’t provide answers to these questions until they are able to conductexploration activities, and to do so requires the tenure. It’s a smartmove if they want the project to proceed at all costs. Once the tenureis granted, the community has little recourse, regardless of what theanswers to their questions turn out to be.

In response to thelack of information surrounding the project, a group of citizens fromTelkwa and the surrounding Bulkley Valley has come together to sharetheir concerns and ensure their community’s values are protected.Citizens Concerned About Coalbed Methane has sent delegations tomeetings of local town councils, and held info sessions on coalbedmethane for community members. The group’s membership is at 158 membersand growing!

In September, Citizens Concerned About CoalbedMethane plans to hold a public forum on the proposed project.Presenting at the forum will be independent scientists, people fromcommunities with experience with coalbed methane, First Nations,Outrider Energy and representatives from the Ministry of Energy andMines will also be invited. The goal is to engage in an open dialogueon the project’s risks and benefits.

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