Tuesday, January 29, 2008

In Bed With Coalbed Methane

Methane is close to twenty-five times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. However, when methane is burned it releases less carbon dioxide than burning oil. It's a cleaner fuel than gasoline but the problem is that certain ways of extracting it are very dirty and contribute too much greenhouse gases. Coalbed methane extraction involves drilling wells into coal seams. It involves a lot of wells, many more than for conventional oil and gas drilling. And when it's extracted this way, 70 to 80% of the methane escapes into the atmosphere where it contributes to global warming.

They told people in Wyoming, in the Powder River Basin, that there would be only 200 coalbed methane wells. Then they built fourteen thousand more. Now they plan to drill a total of fifty-one thousand in the next few years. This issue is the one thing that has united environmentalists and bedrock republican ranchers in Wyoming.

In order to free the methane from the coal seams water has to be pumped out from deep underground. This water is often saline and there is a lot of it. Each pumping station pumps about fifteen thousand gallons of waste water a day. Multiply that by the number of wells and you begin to see a problem. It can ruin a lot of farmland.

Then there's that other problem – our legal rights or lack thereof. In the United States and Canada landowners have no right to refuse drilling, construction, or extraction of oil and gas on their lands. It's not like the Beverly Hillbillies - our rights to surface land don't extend to subsurface mineral rights. A great nuisance for property owners in oil fields but a disaster for property owners who live near coalbed methane wells, where the constant roar of pumps and compression stations drowns out any peace and quiet.

There are very few coalbed methane wells in BC but there are proposals to drill in three of the far corners: on Vancouver Island, in the southeastern corner, and in the Peace River Country. Royal- Dutch Shell would like to drill a lot of wells right here in the northwest corner in a place they call the Sacred Headwaters. Royal-Dutch Shell plans a modest 14 wells to start, but if they drill productive wells there could be as many as ten thousand in the near future.

The Sacred Headwaters are the headwaters of the Skeena, the Nass, and the Stikine Rivers. This is a pristine Wilderness with Moose and Caribou , where chinook salmon spawn. This is the traditional hunting grounds of the Tahltan first nations people. For three years the Tahltan have been setting up blockades, and sitins to try and stop Royal-Dutch Shell from building roads into their territory. It's gotten to the point that Amnesty International has set-up a campaign to help the Tahltan's fight off big oil.

The BC government has consistantly denied their rights to be consulted. Concerns about the ill effects of drilling of coalbed methane have to be brought to an official sounding body called the BC Oil and Gas Commision which was created by the Campbell government as a front for fossil fuel companies. Ask the Mayor of Fernie whether they were properly consulted before coalbed methane wells were drilled nearby.

Regulations for coalbed methane are so streamlined that there is no requirement for environmental assessment. After all each one of these wells takes up only about a football field worth of land so how much environmental impact can it make? But that conveniently overlooks the sheer number of these wells and the invasiveness of the huge network of roads, wells, pipelines, and compression stations that will be required.

The people in Smithers and Telkwa raised such a ruckus about coalbed methane that the company proposing to drill in their area withdrew their plans. The Tahltans are not so lucky but the Canadian Constitution is on their side. They have a right to be consulted if this development impacts their rights to hunting and fishing. But what about everyone who lives downstream? Shouldn't we be concerned about the risks to water, fish habitat and private property also? The Skeena is our lifeblood. Northwest residents should have a say in how this land is developed. We owe it to our descendants.
If you would like your voice to be heard please write or e-mail Premier Campbell or checkout the active campaign at www.skeenawatershed.com.


  1. Great article!

    We are ramping up a campaign to prevent BP from getting the rights from the province to drill in the south eastern corner of B.C. The Flathead's pristene waters and the Rocky Mountain wilderness in our region would be destroyed by this reckless resource grab.

    Check out cccbm.org for more information and to take action to help keep beautiful BC wild.

    We would like to post the text, with your permission, on cccbm.org For now we will post a link.

  2. Thanks Casey. You have my permission to post this article