Shell’s takeover raises concerns in BC

Environmental and Human rights concerns raised in Royal Dutch Shell’stakeover of Shell Canada 

The wave offoreign takeovers of Canadian corporations is setting off alarm bells in Ottawa and in corporate boardrooms across Canada. Thefeeding frenzy has already consumed Canadian mining giants such as INCO andFalconbridge, steelmaker Dofasco and even iconic brewer Labatt. Alcan and BCEare in the cross hairs and Bombardier is worried. While CEO’s, pundits andpoliticians sound the alarm about the long-term impacts on the Canadianeconomy, Royal Dutch Shell’s takeover of Shell Canada raises these as well andpotential environmental and human rights concerns.

A video released byDogwood Initiative draws attention to these issues and the potential impacts aproject Shell is pushing forward in northern BC will have on a First Nation.View Nigeria North video online:

When Royal Dutch Shell’s directors took the reins of Shell Canada earlier thismonth, they inherited a brewing resource conflict in a remote corner of British Columbia thatbears a striking semblance to Royal Dutch’s difficulties in other parts of theworld.

The five-minutedocumentary, produced by a volunteer for Dogwood Initiative, focuses onRoyal Dutch Shell’s poor human rights track record in Nigeria. It draws parallels toShell’s proposed coalbed methane project in northern BC, which has been opposedby indigenous elders of the Tahltan First Nation.

Shell’scoalbed methane drilling has ignited a conflict in a remote watershed north ofHazelton off Highway 37, where the first trickles of three magnificent riversoriginate. The creation legends of north western First Nations, name the sharedbeginnings of the Nass, Stikine and Skeena Rivers as the place theworld began.  Hence the area’s localname: the Sacred Headwaters.

Amagnificent landscape full of wildlife, it is the territory of the Tahltanpeople, who have hunted and trapped there for generations.

TheSacred Headwaters also happens to contain one of British Columbia’s largest coal deposits.And where there is coal there could be coalbed methane, gas trapped in coal seemsand held in place be massive amounts of often toxic water.  The BC government, with little or noconsultation with local people, sold Shell Canada – and now Royal Dutch Shell -drilling rights to explore for coalbed methane in the Sacred Headwaters.

Shellmoved quickly. Three years ago, they unceremoniously bulldozed an access roadthrough a Tahltan trapper’s camp in the heart of the headwaters before mostTahltan knew the Sacred Headwaters was threatened. With their equipment inplace, Shell quickly drilled three exploratory wells. 

Theswiftness of Shell’s actions, combined with the lack of discussion with localpeople,  outraged many Tahltan. While theTahltan had some familiarity with mining, (because of the nearby Eskay Creekgold mine) they had little experience with the oil and gas industry. As theylearned more about the impacts of coalbed methane drilling, the growinggrassroots opposition of farmers, ranchers and First Nations to coalbed methanein Alberta,Montana Wyoming, seemingly (wherever it is being produced) they becameconcerned. The more they learned the more the concern became determination toprotect their territory from the threats posed by the invasive drilling, theoften toxic water produced, the massive footprint of roads, pipelines, powerlines and compressors that run 24/7/365.

Afterthe initial test wells were drilled, locals began asking Shell for informationabout the potential impacts on water, wildlife and other resources important totheir culture. Shell provided little information.

Thenext flashpoint in the Tahltan’s struggle with Shell occurred in 2005, whenfour Shell Canada employees came to the band office in the small Tahltan village of Iskut. There, they were greeted by agroup of Tahltan elders and children wearing regalia, beating drums andcarrying signs saying, “Stop Shell”…”Save our land”.  It wasn’t the welcoming ceremony theyexpected. The elders gathered and read the Shell employees a notice evictingShell from their territory.  The localchief, Louis, quietly asked that Shell, “please go away…leave us alone.”  The Shell representatives quickly got back intheir truck and drove away.

Whilethe eviction of Shell was a unified demonstration of Tahltan power, there alsoexists a deep internal struggle within this northern nation.  In the face of an unprecedented northernmining and energy boom, the Talhtan are scrambling to balance potentialeconomic development with threats to their lands.  They are working hard to reconcile internaldivisions between those pro-development forces and those who see the currentscenario as simply too much, too fast. Compounding all this are theall-too-common tensions between the hereditary, family-based system and theelected band system.

Theeviction forced Shell to cancel follow up drilling plans for that season.  Yet they continue to pressure various Tahltanorganizations and leaders for support, threatening to resume drilling eachsummer.  So far Shell has beenunsuccessful, opposition to Shell and coalbed methane remains strong and onceagain Shell was forced to cancel last summer’s drilling program rather thanrisk conflict.

Thepotential backlash against Shell escalated last summer when First Nations,concerned citizens, environmental groups gathered in the Sacred Headwaters tocelebrate its importance to northern native cultures.  David Suzuki, Wade Davis and otherwell-connected figures joined the Tahltan, Haida,  Wet’suwet’en, Gitxsan, Taku River Tlingit,Haisla, and Tsay Keh Dene by pledging to “protect the land from unwantedresource development …to defend our headwaters, wild, beautiful and sacredforever.”

ButShell continues to push there plan to drill in the Sacred Headwaters.  Shell’s latest proposal involves the companyconducting a limited exploratory drilling program in exchange for a set ofundisclosed concessions.  There initialdrilling indicated the potential for thousands of wells in the area.  However, despite ongoing negotiations withsome Tahltan representatives, local opposition remains strong.  The Iskut elders, who are resolute in theiropposition to the project moving forward, are unlikely to accept more drilling.

Sofar Shell Canada has proceeded cautiously in Tahltan country, wary of thedamage media showing First Nations grandmothers being dragged away by RCMPcould do to its already tainted corporate image.  It remains to be seen whether Royal DutchShell, who obtained the drilling tenure as part of the takeover of ShellCanada, will be as cautious.

Afterall, Royal Dutch has a reputation of engaging in – and even exploiting – deeplydivided indigenous communities.  Forexample, in Nigeria,as in BC, an aggressive expansion of oil and gas drilling is being implementeddespite unresolved indigenous claims. The decades-long violent conflict between Shell, the Nigeriangovernment, and the Ogoni people that has severely tarnished Shell’sinternational reputation.

In1995 the Nigerian military executed anti-Shell activist Ken Saro-Wiwa(allegedly with Shells complicity).
  Thekilling of the renowned environmental-human rights activist sent shockwavesaround the globe, inspiring anti-Shell outrage that led to massive consumerboycotts of the petroleum giant.

Shellrole in the Nigeriacrisis is well-documented.  A leakedinternal report Shell commissioned in 2004 states, “We sometimes feed conflictby the way we award contracts, gain access to land and deal with communityrepresentatives.”  It’s an admission thatdoes not bode well for the Tahltan.

WhileBC resource conflicts look tame next to the violent political environment ofthe Niger Delta, the temperature is rising in BC’s North.  Tahltan elders blockaded the main access roadinto the Sacred Headwaters both in 2005 and 2006, preventing access by twomining companies (Fortune Minerals and bcMetals), who wanted to drill in theSacred Headwaters.  Both non-violent protestsdelayed drilling for months and led to arrests.

Becausemany of the blockading elders are peaceful grandmothers, physical violence isunlikely.  But Tahltan elders fear RoyalDutch Shell will perpetrate another kind of violence.  If the company pushes forward with itsproject before the Tahltan have decided upon a land-use plan for theirterritory, it will undoubtedly result in more blockades, arrests, and theupheaval of a fragile community.  At atime of year when Tahltan families hunt moose and fish for salmon, they will beinstead be fighting drilling operations – camping not in the alpine headwaters,but at the blockade site at the junction of Ealue Lake Road and Highway 37.

Thereare other deeper, more disturbing social consequences, for a village thatalready suffers from high rates of drug and alcohol abuse and suicide. With thesocial fabric already stretched, the turmoil caused by Shell and various miningcompanies – the boom economy they promise and the inevitable bust theyde-emphasize – pushes the community closer to a total social breakdown.

Butthe Tahltan are not alone. Shell’s activities in northern BC are beginning todraw international attention. In addition to David Suzuki and Wade Davis,environmental organizations are beginning to engage.  The day Royal Dutch took over Shell Canada,One Sky, the Canadian Institute for Sustainable Living, released a reportentitled When Gas Explodes, explicitlydrawing the Nigeria-BC link.

Andpeople from around the world are clicking on YouTube to see documentary videoDogwood Initiative recently released entitled British Columbia: Nigeria North? The video is generating lots ofinterest. And we are just getting started.

Localopposition, international spotlight combined with growing grassroots oppositionto coalbed methane in communities throughout BC, poses escalating challengesfor Shell, the BC government and other coalbed methane proponents.  Just south of the Sacred Headwaters, theresidents of the Bulkley Valley, including the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, havewaged an effective and populist campaign against a proposed coalbed methanefield adjacent to the village of Telkwa.  Protests against the project have seen over600 people take to the streets of Smithers (in a town of only 5,000people).  The Wet’suwet’en and Bulkleyactivists have received support from the Tahltan elders and are likely toreciprocate should the Tahltan call on them.

PerhapsRoyal Dutch Shell was unaware of the potential conflicts they inherited?  Were Royal Dutch Shell’s directors briefed on the conflicts developing in theSacred Headwaters?  Or did Shell Canadasimply unroll the BC Ministry of Energy and Mines’ coalbed methane resource mapand point to the shaded area indicating 8 trillion cubic feet of coalbedmethane?

We will never know. 

Inthe best of circumstances, coalbed methane creates potential for explosions. Inthe early days of coal mining, coalbed methane – then known as firedamp – wasmuch feared by coalminers. This odorless, invisible gas sometimessurreptitiously collected in mineshafts, causing fatal explosions with a singlespark.  To warn them of this threat,miners took canaries underground with them. If the birds died it served as a clear sign of danger.

Thereis no canary to indicate the imminent danger in the Sacred Headwaters for RoyalDutch Shell directors.  So they have achoice: attempt to go into the Sacred Headwaters with no canary and risk anexplosion or in the face of the escalating attention, to do the right thing andgive up their coalbed methane tenure.

The choice is theirs.  Proceed cautiously.

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