Dewatering the holy headwaters

Find out how the ‘Serengeti of North America’ negotiates coalbed methane

By: Monty Bassett

Visible only by its movement across the alpine, the cinnamon grizzly moves like an undulating shag pattern on a carpet of fall fabric. In a single day, the bear has left paw prints in three separate watersheds.

The high plateau country of the Spatsizi and Mount Klappan is bountiful with wild animals—known internationally as the Serengeti of North America.

But, according to some, this area may soon become the stage for one of the largest environmental fights on the continent. For just downhill from the grizzly, along the southern border of the Spatsizi Wilderness Park, Shell Canada has began clearing off the topsoil for a test drill program to explore the possibility of extracting coalbed methane.

“For us,” says Pat Etzerza, one of the Tahltan elders who have been occupying the Telegraph Creek Tahltan Band Office since Jan. 17, 2004, “the Klappan region is ‘sacred.’ It is the headwaters of three major west coast watersheds. Yet, I’m told that coalbed methane [extraction] is one of the most harmful methods of resource removal developed by man.”

Mount Klappan is a vast region where only the hearty survive. Geologically, the Klappan region is an alpine plateau composed of many layers, some bearing coal. It is a windswept land where winter wind-chills can drive temperatures below -80”C. The growing season is a short five months, and the botanical species that do survive do so on the thinnest of margins, and are usually limited to Spartan colonies of buck-brush, dwarfed fir, sedges and lichen.

Traditionally, the abundance of wildlife attracted aboriginal hunters, and later it drew trophy hunters from around the world. So vast and wild is the country that the famed outlaw Simon Gunanoot disappeared with his family of eight into its recesses, not to emerge until 13 years later.

From the standpoint of inland fisheries, though the region is far from the ocean, Mt. Klappan is critical to the whole Pacific west coast. Within a radius of a few kilometres, six rivers begin on its slopes, in turn forming the headwaters of three major west coast watersheds: the Stikine, Skeena and Nass rivers. It is for this reason that the Klappan/Spatsizi CBM proposal may become the focus of public attention, as whatever affects the headwaters of a watershed may have devastating consequences downstream.

Methane is the gas used for home cooking and heating. It is the cleanest of the hydrocarbon fuels, and doesn’t require extensive refining like crude oil. Still, its greenhouse potential is 21 times that of carbon dioxide, but the problem lies in how it is taken from the ground.

There are two sources of methane in nature: natural gas (“conventional”) and coalbed methane (“unconventional”). Though both produce the same product, the difference in environmental impact is considerable.

Natural gas is found under pressure in large pools far beneath the earth’s crust. Once it is penetrated, the gas shoots to the surface. Because coalbed methane is absorbed in small pockets and fractures in the coal, it is trapped there by an overlying layer of rock and saturated with water. Consequently, the aquifer water has to be pumped out of the coal before the methane can escape. And in some dense coals (like anthracite) the seam may have to be fractured by pumping a slurry of water, sand, diesel and benzene.

Where conventional natural gas fields require only a few wells for a property to be commercially viable, coalbed methane extraction needs many wells, typically hundreds. As a result, a complex lattice of roads and pipelines spider-webbing between wellheads, leaving a vast footprint of sometimes thousands of square hectares characterizes CBM properties.

Yet the real problem is the water. In the U.S., this “produced water” is regulated as a toxic substance. In various reports issued by the U.S, Environmental Protection Agency, there are a number of impacts related to coalbed methane extraction, the most prominent being water quality.

An average well in its first year pumps 20,000 gallons per day and a typical field will have hundreds of wellheads. Because the subsurface water is often heavily mineralized with salts, sometimes laced with arsenic and barium, disposal of it is of paramount consideration.

The minerals in the water can occur in concentrations three to four times higher than tolerance levels of normal plants. It’s common knowledge that even a fraction of these levels can be terminal for highly vulnerable plants like lichen. Lichens, which do not have leaves, cannot purge themselves of toxins and therefore accumulate them. Once the land base has been contaminated, it is difficult to mitigate its effects in the future.

And since lichens are a mainstay for caribou and mountain sheep, these toxins enter the food chain and directly affect wildlife populations. Caribou radio-collaring studies conducted by the Spatsizi Association for Biological Research, indicate that the Fireflats Valley adjacent to the Shell-owned leases is a major calving and summer range of Osborne caribou, and thus they would immediately be vulnerable to the effects of coalbed methane extraction.

A report issued by the Western Organization of Resource Councils concluded that dewatering of the aquifer often causes problems with surrounding fresh water. An independent geochemist, Walt Merschat, notes that once the aquifer has been drained, methane is free to escape anywhere it can find a source to the surface.

Free methane venting can have explosive effects, not to mention its introduction into natural water flows, according to Merschat. And since the Shell property would sit at the headwaters of three of the west coast fisheries, this aspect of the project could be of particular concern for fisheries.

While the extraction of coalbed methane is a relatively new practice (25 years), even some of the people who were once proponents of the process, are now strong advocates against it. The Powder River basin in Wyoming is a case in point. Ranchers who had signed contracts with gas companies to allow wells to be put on their property (according to a CBC documentary, “The Big Prize”) discovered that the discharge water and escaping methane made their land unusable and their animals ill when they came in contact with it. Families who had occupied the land for generations were being forced to sell.

The oil and gas industry acknowledges that mistakes were made, and say practices like those in the Powder River are a thing of the past. Now there are environmental reviews and baseline standards in the U.S. However, when it comes to environmental protection for CBM, British Columbia is a “rogue state,” according to Dave Thomas, town councillor for Fernie, B.C., which stopped a coalbed methane bid recently. “Where coalbed methane projects in the U.S. and Alberta have public environmental review processes in place, and performance standards, British Columbia has neither,” he says.

In fact, in an effort to attract the oil and gas industry to British Columbia, the provincial government has circumvented the normal agencies responsible for environmental review, turning all facets of the review and permitting processes over to the Oil and Gas Commission.

But, because the commission lacks the technicians to collect and evaluate data, it is dependent upon the petroleum industry to conduct the impact analysis. “A bit like the cat watching the mice, and reporting that everything’s fine to a toothless dog,” observed a disgruntled bureaucrat with the Ministry of Environment who prefers to remain anonymous. Even the public is removed from access to the review process since the Commission is not obliged to release any material for three years under a “Confidentially Clause.”

The Klappan venture is Shell Canada’s first foray into coalbed methane exploration. And the company is the first to admit that it does not know very much about the 400,000-hectare permit area it received from the B.C. government.

In the fall of 2004, Shell began a five-hole test program to sample the coal for absorbed methane. But it was only able to drill three holes, and the results were inconclusive, forcing the company to return this upcoming summer for more testing.

It’s speculated by the BC Mines Ministry that there is eight trillion cubic feet of methane in the Klappan/Spatsizi region. If Shell captures 20 per cent, which is average for a CBM field, the total amount from the Klappan project would meet Canada’s domestic needs and export commitments for 40 days.

Depending upon their test results, Shell stands to make billions of dollars in the Klappan/Spatsizi, but to the Tahltan elders everything comes with a price—too high, according to Etzerza.

“Are we willing to risk altering the sacred headwaters of three vital watersheds—permanently—for a month or two of cooking gas?”