Proposed Canadian Coal-Bed Methane Exploration Worries Officials

By Beacon Staff

KALISPELL, (AP) – A new proposal to drill for coal-bed methane north of Glacier National Park has Montana officials looking for a permanent solution to energy development issues in southeastern British Columbia.

“We’re tired of fighting this project after project after project,” said Rich Moy, water management chief with Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. “What we need to develop is a long-term solution that protects the integrity of the Flathead River system.”

Over the past three decades Moy has worked with five different governors to buffer the Flathead River Basin from Canadian energy development just north of the border.

The international dispute first surfaced in the 1970s when coal interests sought to expand open-pit mining into the Canadian Flathead. The river flowing south from that valley crosses the border to form the western boundary of Glacier National Park before spilling into Flathead Lake.

Downstream interests have long argued that development north of the border will impact water and wildlife south of the international line. Several coal and coal-bed methane proposals have been shot down amid repeated international controversies.

Now federal officials from both countries are discussing the possible fate of a large coal mine proposed for the headwater reaches of Canada’s Flathead River.

More recently, the BP Canada Energy Co. wrote to Gov. Brian Schweitzer announcing the company’s intent to evaluate “the potential development of coal-bed natural gas resources in the Crowsnest coal field.”

The letter calls the 148,000-acre Crowsnest a “tremendous opportunity,” and promises to minimize social and environmental impacts associated with coal-bed methane drilling. The field is thought to contain some 27.7 billion tons of coal and 12 trillion cubic feet of coal-bed methane gas.

BP Canada’s plans include the upper reaches of the Flathead drainage, said company spokeswoman Anita Perry.

The company’s initial $100 million investment plan includes drilling up to two dozen coal-bed methane test wells over the next five years. If the wells produce enough gas, Perry said, the company would pursue full development.

She said the letter was sent to Schweitzer’s office on May 15 as a courtesy to alert Montana that the evaluation was beginning.

“It’s a place of considerable interest to a lot of people,” Perry said. “We want to open the talks now, early in the process, because we know there’s a lot to talk about.”

On June 8 and 9, at a meeting of regional governors in South Dakota, Moy said Schweitzer hopes to meet with British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell to discuss a long-term strategy for managing the Canadian Flathead in a way both countries can accept.

Montana might ask that future energy development be banned, or might ask for a 50-year moratorium on mining and drilling, or could ask that the Flathead be made a “primitive area” with a focus on recreational use.

In turn, Moy said, Montana and the U.S. government might offer technical assistance in developing British Columbia’s emergent recreational and tourism economy, or might offer financial assistance in developing the infrastructure for that economy.

“There are many, many options for how to get there,” Moy said.

Already, municipal leaders in Canadian towns adjacent to the proposed developments have expressed concerns about mining and drilling there.

“It’s time to settle this once and for all,” said Will Hammerquist, Glacier program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. “We need some stability for future negotiations.”

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