Conflict over coalbed methane exploration

Vancouver, Canada – A visitor experiencing the pristine and majestic wilderness of northern British Columbia’s Klappan Valley would not expect that they were trudging on the site of a deepening conflict. However, after three years, a proposed natural gas project for the area is driving new tensions between Shell Canada and community stakeholders. Citing potential environmental and social consequences for the area, several groups are protesting Shell Canada’s plans to proceed with exploration for coalbed methane natural gas in the Klappan.

Elders of the Tahltan First Nation, whose traditional territory lies within the valley, are leading the opposition through an organization called the Klabona Keepers, and denying mining vehicles access to the site’s only road.

Coalbed methane is a natural gas recovered from coal by releasing pressure in an underground coal seam, using drilling techniques similar to those used in other gas wells. Water, which is sometimes found saturating the coal, is extracted before the natural gas is removed via pipeline. As of August 2006, about 75 coalbed methane wells and test holes had been drilled in BC.

Opinions vary on the environmental sustainability of coalbed methane extraction.

Proponents of coalbed methane argue that it is a clean-burning fuel, and note that it does not contain hydrogen sulfide or many impurities in general. They also argue that industry best practices ensure that the gas is extracted in a sustainable manner. Though it is unknown exactly how much coalbed methane exists in British Columbia, proponents believe that deposits of the resource are sufficient to make significant contributions to the provincial economy.

However, many environmentalists have condemned the process, raising concerns about the extraction of large amounts of toxic water, disruption to land surfaces due to construction and drilling, and the burning off or flaring of natural gas that cannot be conserved.

In the case of the Klappan, protestors argue that the potential environmental impacts of coalbed methane extraction are too much for a highly active ecosystem. The area is the starting point for the salmon-rich Stikine, Skeena, and Nass rivers, home to BC’s largest woodland caribou population, and also includes the world’s largest lambing area for stone sheep.

The area also has an important cultural dimension: known locally as the Sacred Headwaters, the area is remembered in Tahltan oral stories as the place where Raven created the world.

The conflict heated up on August 24, 2007 when Shell Canada filed an injunction to have protesters ordered off of the access road. However, Shell requested to adjourn the case in B.C. Supreme Court late last week in order to review materials submitted by the defence. Over 100 people including Dr. David Suzuki gathered outside Vancouver courthouse on August 31 to voice their opposition to the injunction.

“We’re beyond the phase of talking about how this can be done in the least impactful way. We’re saying absolutely no coalbed methane in the Sacred Headwaters,” Shannon McPhail of the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition told Globe-Net. The Coalition is working to protect the Klappan from energy development by Shell.

The conflict dates back to 2004, when Shell Canada signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Chair of the Tahltan Central Council, the Chief of the Tahltan Band, and the Chief of the Iskut First Nation. The agreement was followed by a 265-day sit-in, during which Tahltan Elders took over the Council office and demanded then-Council Chief Jerry Aft’s resignation.

In the meantime, the BC government awarded mineral rights to Shell Canada for the Klappan methane reserve, estimated at approximately eight trillion cubic feet. After Shell drilled three exploratory wells and began to proceed with environmental testing, First Nations elders read Shell a notice evicting the corporation from their territory. Since then, Talthan elders have carried out the access road blockade, and Shell has postponed its field activities.

Both Shell Canada and the BC government maintain that Shell is acting within the legal rights it has been granted by the province through the tenure agreement.

“We want to collect further data to understand if the gas can be extracted in an environmentally responsible and a commercially viable manner,” Larry Lalonde, spokesman for Shell Canada, told Globe-Net.

“One of the obvious things that we need to address is to protect the Headwaters streams, rivers, and fish. We will use best practice technical, environmental, and water management procedures during our exploration field program in the Klappan,” says Lalonde.

However, protesters suggest that tenure should not have been granted in the first place:

“The BC Ministry of Energy and Mines sold the tenure to Shell without properly consulting before that tenure was sold, and this is definitely not the only situation where this is happening,” says McPhail, citing four other disputes in Northern BC involving First Nations groups and the Ministry.

To mitigate concerns, Shell has conducted ongoing consultations with local stakeholders, provided tours for Tahltan elders of coalbed methane operations in Montana and funded First Nations attendance to the Canadian Society for Unconventional Gas Conference. The corporation has also promised any water produced in the next phase of exploration will be trucked out for disposal or returned back to the coal.

Nonetheless, on July 27, 2007, fourteen environmental and community groups, including environmental notables Greenpeace, The Sierra Club, and The David Suzuki Foundation, sent Shell a letter protesting coalbed methane extraction in the Klappan.

The letter states: “The community, with the leadership from the elders, is requesting that drilling activities be postponed until they have completed a land stewardship plan for their traditional territory.” According to McPhail, the process for creating that plan is already underway, and may be nearing completion.

Meanwhile, Shell maintains that it can carry out its exploration project in an environmentally sustainable manner:

“It’s important that we do it in a sustainable way, and we at Shell believe that we can. We believe that we have done the environmental studies to be able to put us in a good position for that. We have looked at the risks and looked at ways to minimize those risks,” Lalonde said.

The Skeena Watershed Coalition remains unconvinced:

“Shell keeps coming from the point that this is just exploration,” said Shannon McPhail. “They just want to get in there and they just want to see what’s there, and then they will consult if they prove there is natural gas. Well, if they’re pushing this hard, just for the exploration, how far are they willing to go once they do know what’s there? It doesn’t comfort us in any way for them to say it’s just exploration.”

For further information on Shell Canada’s project in the Klappan, click here.

For information on the campaign to prevent further exploration in the Klappan, visit or

To view the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition’s website, visit

For More Information: The Tyee

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