Miles Apart, Worlds Away

By Kellyn Brown

The prospects of British Petroleum drilling for coal-bed methane in the Canadian Flathead appeared to dim last week when Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., boasted that the oil behemoth had quivered under intense U.S. pressure. “I made it clear,” Baucus told a boisterous Kalispell crowd, “Ain’t no way that this is going to happen, period.”

Cheering ensued, but now it’s unclear why. As it turns out, whether BP backed away from its coal-bed exploration project depends on what you read, to whom you listen and where you live. In the States, a day after Baucus announced that he had talked with the president of BP America who assured him that the plans were scrapped, headlines across the state portrayed Montana as a victor. A headline in the Flathead Beacon read: “BP Backs Down.” Another local newspaper declared, “Coal-bed drilling plans withdrawn.”

A few days later, however, a headline in the Toronto Globe and Mail, Canada’s foremost national newspaper, read: “Despite Controversy, BP methane project is a go.” On its face, the story appears to contradict all of those appearing stateside. But not exactly. A small, controversial piece of BP’s original proposal to explore in the North Fork of the Flathead River basin was scrapped – for now. Critics of that proposal have long contended that the area is too pristine to mitigate environmental damage from energy development and Montana waterways would suffer.

While Montana newspapers led with what BP is not exploring, their Canadian counterparts just mentioned it passing. And politicians there were perplexed by Baucus’s declaration that somehow Montana had prevailed in the lengthy standoff.

“If Max Baucus says the sun is shining, the first thing you do is go out and have a look,” B.C. Energy Minister Richard Neufeld told the Canadian newspaper.

It’s unclear whether this is just a clash of egos – Baucus’s positions on Canadian mining and logging are wildly unpopular there – or a real difference in what BP’s position change means. Baucus has maintained that BP America President Bob Malone told him in a phone call that the company had completely abandoned part of its plans. And Baucus’s spokesman later told the Missoulian that if “BP isn’t really halting plans to develop the Canadian Flathead, then they just lied to two U.S. senators.”

If it’s a lie, it may be a white one. BP is proceeding with its $3-billion Mist Mountain coal-bed methane project minus the piece in the North Fork. Meanwhile, it will conduct some environmental work, get feedback from concerned parties and determine whether exploring the Canadian Flathead is in its best interest. Did BP back down? Slowed down is more accurate. What is still at full bore is the rate at which Canadian and U.S. politicians are swapping rhetoric, if they’re speaking to each other at all. After Gov. Schweitzer and B.C. Premier Gordon Brown exchanged strongly worded letters over the issue, the Globe and Mail reported that the two men haven’t contacted each other since.

No one reported that the fight over drilling north of the border had ended. But to find out who won the latest round, we may have to look a bit closer at the scorecards.