Legal Expert Says Montana Should Have Input on Canadian Mining, Drilling

By Beacon Staff

Speaking to the Flathead Coalition Monday night about mining projects in British Columbia north of Glacier National Park, an expert in international water and energy law told concerned valley residents that legal precedent is on the side of Montanans.

“On this one, you’re fighting on the side of the angels,” Richard Paisley, professor of law at the University of British Columbia, said. “You’ve got international law on your side.”

Paisley has helped resolve conflicts over water rights along the Mekong Delta in Southeast Asia, and the Nile River in Africa. The situation between Montana and B.C. is similar to trans-boundary water disputes elsewhere, he said, and because Montana has an “equitable and reasonable utilization” of the water in the Flathead River system that could be damaged by mining and drilling upstream, it is entitled to some sort of compromise.

The caveat, Paisley said, is that international legal precedent can be murky, and generally applies only when the two opposing parties agree to sit down at the bargaining table. Such a meeting has yet to take place between leaders of B.C. and Montana.

The remarks came at an open house by the Flathead Coalition, where about 30 people, including Democratic and Republican state legislators and aides for U.S. Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Jon Tester, D-Mont., gathered to hear from Paisley and representatives of two other Canadian conservation groups.

At issue are proposals by British Petroleum to drill for coalbed methane, and by the Cline Mining Company to do mountaintop-removal coal mining in the headwaters of the North Fork Flathead River. The Canadian Flathead is a significant habitat for grizzly bears and other wildlife, and its rivers are trout-spawning areas. Opponents of the projects say the mining and drilling would harm wildlife as well as pollute the Flathead River watershed.

Updating the group on the controversial mining projects, Casey Brennan, Southern Rockies Program Manager for Wildsight, a Canadian conservation group, said the Cline Mining Company has indicated to B.C. provincial officials that it was temporarily “putting the project on hold, they are taking time out.” Brennan gave a presentation with photos and footage of wildlife in the Canadian Flathead, as well as the environmental damage, erosion, and clear-cutting that has resulted from previous CBM drill pads in the area.

While the Cline project may be stalled, Dave Hadden of the Flathead Coalition told the group that BP is likely to apply for a permit to drill for CBM as early as January.

“BP is on the doorway of asking for an exploratory permit,” Hadden said. “Once they get that vested right, we’re going to be in a real fight until we beat it.”

Kirby Campbell-Rierson, spokeswoman for Baucus, reiterated his plan to hold a public Senate hearing in the Flathead to raise the profile’s issue.

Chloe O’Loughlin, executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s B.C. chapter, said the mining projects are gradually gaining public awareness in B.C., with a recent high-profile segment by a popular Vancouver news program.

The best thing concerned Montanans can do, she and Brennan said, is continue to keep the issue in the public eye and push for a summit between B.C. and Montana’s leaders, because it is beginning to catch the ear of the provincial government.

“The door is slightly open,” O’Loughlin said, and B.C. government officials “are starting to realize maybe this is a big mess.”