BUSINESS EXTRA: Residents leery of coal development

HALF OF of those northwesterners contacted by a polling company oppose Shell Canada’s coalbed methane drilling plans in the Klappan area north of here, results released May 2 indicate.

Just under one-third weren’t sure and fully one-third of those polled by McAllister Opinion Research on behalf of Skeena Bulkley NDP MP Nathan Cullen had not even heard of Shell’s project.

Seven of every 10 people who responded felt coalbed methane drilling shouldn’t take place in watersheds supporting wild salmon.

The Klappan contains the headwaters of the Skeena, Nass and Stikine rivers, prompting worries from environmental groups and others that industrial development could harm downstream salmon habitat.

“The people of the northwest, not some giant, foreign oil company, will decide how to develop our natural resources,” said Cullen in response to the poll’s results.

“I have been hearing increasing concern over the past several years form people who live in the Skeena watershed about Shell’s proposed developments. They’re telling me that this project is not worth the risk to our salmon, water and wildlife.”

Shell has been working on the Klappan project since 2004 but so far has drilled only three exploratory wells in the area.

It wants to go back this fall, drilling another 14 wells to determine if there is sufficient coalbed methane natural gas to develop a larger pilot project.

Shell official Larry Lalonde downplayed the survey as the result of the company’s own lack of community engagement.

“The dialogue so far has been one-sided against the project,” he said. “We have been consulting for four years with the Tahltan First Nation. In the last one-and-a-half months we’ve stepped up the effort to let [other] communities know how we will be doing this.”

Lalonde suggested community opposition has gotten ahead of the game.

“There’s no risk at this stage. We’re just trying to learn if there’s gas, and if there’s any water produced.”

The project has faced fierce opposition due to the possibility of toxic wastewater laying in the coalseam. Opponents point to Shell’s inexperience with coalbed methane as additional cause for major alarm, despite the company’s assurance of a diligent, ecologically sensitive approach.

Shell has said it won’t release any underground water on the surface.

The survey was conducted of 400 Prince Rupert, Smithers and Terrace residents using random digit dialing, between April 17th and 21st and is considered to be accurate to within +/- 4.9%, 19 times out of 20.

(Posted May 3, 2008 at 6:10 a.m. With files from The Interior News, Smithers, B.C.)