The media storm by Montana’s U.S. senators opposing mining proposals in the Canadian Flathead has been difficult to avoid lately, but the third member of the state’s federal delegation has been conspicuously silent on the issue. U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., attributes his low profile – not to a difference in opinion on the mining proposals by British Petroleum and Cline Mining Co. – but to a difference in tactics.
“I am absolutely opposed to any environmental degradation caused by anything on the other side of the border,” Rehberg said in an interview last week. “I tend to work a little more quietly.”
Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont. and Jon Tester, D-Mont. last week sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice requesting that Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, which lies downstream of the proposed mining sites, be added to the “List of World Heritage in Danger” to bolster Montana’s case for preventing any mining to the north.
The previous week brought a public rebuke by Canada’s U.S. Ambassador Michael Wilson to a request by Baucus and Tester to allow an international joint commission to review the environmental impact of the proposed open pit coal mine and coalbed methane drilling in southeastern British Columbia. The same week British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell gave Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer a mixed response after the governor called for a meeting of officials on both sides of the border to discuss the issue.
Rehberg said he supports and agrees with Montana’s Democratic leaders so far and has a “no tolerance” view of the mining projects, but he’s also wary of alienating Canadian leaders in the early stages of a process that could take years to resolve.
“We can puff our chests and threaten to have legislation but it doesn’t carry any water in Canada,” Rehberg said. “We can go ahead and threaten all we want, but they’re a different country.”
Opponents of the controversial mining projects proposed by Cline and BP say both will cause significant environmental damage to a pristine ecosystem that includes a large grizzly bear population and bull trout spawning area. The Cline coalmine could release toxins like selenium, phosphorus and nitrates into the headwaters of the North Fork of the Flathead River. Critics of BP’s proposal to drill for coalbed methane consider it a greater threat than Cline’s, and warn that the significant wastewater that results from the extraction process will also find its way into the Flathead watershed, among other hazards. British Columbia officials emphasize both projects are years away from breaking ground and would be conducted in a way that doesn’t harm the environment.
In April, Rehberg said he met with Ambassador Wilson and Roy Norton, Minister of the Canadian Embassy, to discuss the Cline Mine proposal. He added that he believes the State Department should get involved in the dispute and he has discussed the issue with officials there. If Schweitzer can achieve a summit with Canadian officials, Rehberg said he would like to participate and he supports Baucus’s letter calling for the joint commission.
“If I’d been asked by Max, I would have signed the letter,” Rehberg said, adding that if he had written his own letter, it would have said “ditto.”
Rehberg has been less outspoken than his counterparts in the Senate because, he said, he wants to be careful with what is a delicate situation between Montana and its neighbor to the north.
“I don’t want my rhetoric to become an impediment to a reasonable solution,” Rehberg said. “I have to kind of check myself and say, ‘It’s better to work through the consensus process.’”
But when push comes to shove on the issue of natural resource development in the Canadian Flathead, Rehberg said he is not averse to taking strong measures against Canada, particularly in its trade relationship on such products as beef, softwood lumber and molasses.
“This is probably something headed for less than a reasonable solution if it moves forward,” he said. “Our real leverage is, if you do something to us, we’re going to do something back and it may not be something that you’re going to enjoy.”
Caryn Miske, executive director of the Flathead Basin Commission, which is working to defeat the mining proposals, participates in meetings with the senators’ staff every few months. She said she has met with Rehberg’s staff on the issue and they have been supportive, but those meetings are “more sporadic.” Miske emphasized that while Canadian officials say these mining projects are in the very early stages, BP could acquire tenure rights to the massive coalfield to conduct exploratory drilling as early as March 2008. “I don’t think we can wait much longer,” she said.
Rehberg said Montana’s federal delegation meets together more frequently now than when former-senator Conrad Burns served. Every two weeks, Rehberg said, Baucus, Tester and he lunch together and confer on issues, including the Canadian mine proposals. Spokesmen for the senators praised Rehberg’s opposition to BP and Cline, but could not list actions the congressman has taken toward preventing the projects.
“I assume that Congressman Rehberg also opposes BP’s plans to drill upstream from Glacier Park,” said Tester spokesman Matt McKenna, “as for the specifics of what he has been doing, you’d have to ask him.”
Rehberg maintains that he stands with the Democratic senators making up Montana’s small federal delegation in opposing the mine proposals.
“We clearly understand there’s only three of us; if we don’t stick together we’re cooked,” Rehberg said. “Max and Jon can take their own strategy or tactics, I just work differently.”
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