With the peaks of Glacier National Park visible through the window, U.S. Sen. Max Baucus told a crowd at Flathead Valley Community College Thursday that British Petroleum is dropping its plans for coal-bed methane exploration in the headwaters of the North Fork of the Flathead River in British Columbia. Baucus said he received a phone call earlier in the day from Robert Malone, chairman and president of BP America, informing him that the company was backing off.
“I think it’s basically because we all worked very hard to prevent that from happening,” Baucus said. “I take this very personally.”
The Democratic senator, now running for a sixth term, made the announcement at a town hall-style meeting, and was joined by Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. Also present were several scientists and conservation group leaders who have been campaigning against the proposed energy development in the region north of Glacier Park since BP first announced its plans in May of last year.
Baucus said he and Tester have had several meetings with BP executives in which they bluntly stated their opposition to the project.
“I made it clear,” Baucus said. “Ain’t no way that this is going to happen, period.”
Thursday’s meeting was intended as an information session about the hazards of the gas exploration proposal, but with news of BP’s decision it became an impromptu victory party. Baucus and others present, however, cautioned that several energy exploration projects in southeastern B.C. remain threats to water quality and wildlife south of the border.
“It’s solid and you can be proud of it,” Tester told the crowd. “But we still have more work to do.”
While BP is dropping plans to drill for coal-bed methane in areas where pollutants could flow into the North Fork, that section only makes up about one quarter of the land area included in its “Mist Mountain” project seeking gas in the Crowsnest coalfield. It still intends to move forward with plans for test wells in the upper reaches of the Elk River Valley, near the B.C. towns of Fernie and Sparwood.
And the Cline Mining Corporation continues its application to do mountaintop-removal coal mining nearby, which critics say could dump pollutants into Foisey Creek, a tributary of the North Fork. The Cline mine is currently undergoing the Canadian Federal Environmental Assessment process, and taking public comment on the scope of the potential project.
As long as significant coal and gas reserves remain in southeastern B.C., it seems likely companies will seek to develop that energy. Casey Brennan, Southern Rockies Program Manager for Wildsight, a Canadian conservation group, said he and several other groups had planned to draft a letter questioning B.C.’s environmental regulatory process to Greg Reimer, deputy minister of energy, mines and petroleum resources. That letter will require some changes in light of BP’s decision, Brennan said, but doesn’t change the letter’s original intent, which charges that it is unclear how the B.C. government goes about determining the adverse environmental effects of development proposals.
Critics of gas and coal exploration proposals north of Glacier Park – from elected officials to wildlife biologists – have long charged that the area is simply too pristine to mitigate any of the environmental damage that may occur from energy development. In the case of coal mining, that could mean high levels of nitrates, phosphorus and the toxic metal selenium leaking into waterways. In the case of coal-bed methane, the wastewater extracted along with the gas is high in salt, and can also harm water quality. The habitat of large mammals including grizzly bears, and the many bulltrout spawning areas in small streams north of the Flathead Valley, could also suffer.
“I will do everything I honestly, possibly can to prevent that from happening – this is non-negotiable,” Baucus said. “We’re never out of the woods.”
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