BP Backs Down, but Threat Remains

By Beacon Staff

The announcement by British Petroleum last week that it was dropping plans to drill for coal-bed methane in the Canadian Flathead was cause for celebration for just about everyone in Montana downstream of the proposed project. But BP’s pullback only underscores the ongoing proposals to mine and drill in the area that remain.

The blunt and vehement opposition to BP’s project by U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., sometimes concerned conservationists who wondered if it would offend the preternaturally polite Canadians. But ultimately, the approach proved effective. Baucus said he and fellow Democratic Sen. Jon 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.”

Baucus’s remarks came at a town hall meeting last week at Flathead Valley Community College 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. 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 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 told the crowd.

Canadian officials and BP executives confirmed the senator’s announcement. BP Canada spokeswoman Anita Perry said the possibility of coal-bed methane in the Canadian Flathead has been withdrawn from provincial evaluation of the “Mist Mountain Coalbed” project, but the company remains interested in potential drilling in the Elk Valley. The Flathead Basin makes up about a quarter of the land area in BP’s original proposal.

“The province recognizes the sensitivity of the Flathead Valley and so we are not including this area,” said Graham Currie, spokesman for the B.C. Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources. Perry said BP supports “the approach the government is taking.”

Elected officials cautioned that threats to water quality persist, citing BP’s proposed Elk Valley drilling, which empties into the border-straddling Lake Koocanusa.

“There are a lot of ways of doing things right in places where oil and gas can be developed,” said Gov. Brian Schweitzer, also at FVCC. “There are some places where we cannot and we should not develop energy, and the Flathead and the Kootenai are two of them.”

With BP backing off of the Canadian Flathead, focus once again shifts to the Cline Mining Corporation. Cline is applying to remove 40 million tons of coal over the next 20 years from a mountaintop about 25 miles north of the border on the Crowsnest coalfield, which critics say could dump pollutants into Foisey Creek, a tributary of the North Fork of the Flathead River.

Cline intends to export the high-grade coal to Asia for steel development. Its application is currently undergoing the Canadian Federal Environmental Assessment process, and taking public comment on the scope of the potential project.

In the 1980s Baucus helped defeat a similar coal-mining proposal in the area. The ruling of an international joint commission of scientists then determined that coal mining could not be done in an area of such complex hydrology without harming the water quality of Montanans downstream. Baucus hopes he can extend that ruling to include coal-bed methane drilling as well.

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 its disposal is difficult. The habitat of large mammals including grizzly bears, and the many bull trout spawning areas in small streams north of the Flathead Valley, could also suffer.

But 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.

Will Hammerquist, Glacier Park Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, was understandably pleased by BP’s decision. “It’s a great start,” he said. “It’s not a long-term solution but it’s a positive development.”

In the meantime, Hammerquist has a less pressing problem. He recently ordered $1,000 worth of bumper stickers that he no longer needs. The stickers read: “keepGlacierbpfree.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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