It was an exercise in restraint at Wednesday’s meeting of the Flathead Basin Commission during the question and answer period over two proposed mining projects in the headwaters of the North Fork of the Flathead River in British Columbia.
David Grace, of the environmental protection division of the B.C. ministry of the environment, answered questions on the application status of an open pit coal mine proposed by the Cline Mining Corporation, and the more recent announcement by British Petroleum (BP) of its application for a Coal Bed Methane exploratory permit.
BP proposed mining the Crowsnest Coalfield in southeastern B.C., which the company estimates could hold as much as 12 trillion cubic feet of gas, and take as long as 50 years to mine. About 15 to 20 percent of the proposed mining area stretches into the Flathead drainage, with the rest of the exploration in the Elk River valley, near Fernie and Sparwood, B.C. In May, BP sent Gov. Brian Schweitzer a letter informing him of its intent to pursue the project.
Coal Bed Methane extraction can be a controversial mining method, because the byproduct of reaching the gas, which rests along coal seams, is large amounts of water contaminated with salt, ammonia, and other toxins and metals.
Commission members leveled questions at Grace concerning the potential cumulative effects of Cline and BP’s projects, the fact that BP notified Schweitzer of the mining project instead of the B.C. government, and the impacts of the project on water quality and wildlife.
In a meeting last week with Schweitzer, BP told the governor its intention to re-inject all wastewater back into the ground, as well as conduct a three to five year baseline study.
But scientists present at Wednesday’s meeting questioned the integrity of BP’s proposed baseline scientific research on the pristine watershed, when the company has suggested it may be doing exploratory drilling at the same time to decide if the project is worth pursuing.
“It’s not scientifically legitimate or defensible to conduct exploratory work while you’re trying to do a baseline study,” said Ric Hauer, professor at the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station.
Erin Sexton, also a scientist with the Flathead Lake Biological Station, said techniques used for CBM mining like horizontal drilling and re-injecting wastewater into the ground in a mountainous region like the Crowsnest Coalfield are untested.
“It’s not been proven technically feasible to horizontally drill,” Sexton said in an interview later. “No company has successfully injected or re-injected wastewater up there.”
“Given existing projects in the region, like the Elk Valley, we have every reason to believe that wastewater will have to be surface discharged – literally a pipe discharging wastewater into the river,” Sexton added.
Grace was unable to answer many of the questions posed, but repeatedly referred questions to the Oil and Gas Title branch at the B.C. Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources, which is currently handling the BP proposal.
Grace added that BP plans to give a presentation to the Commission at its August meeting.
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