I’m going to fight like hell to stop my neighbourhood from going to Shell

Monty Bassett
Special to The Province

I’m worried about my neighbourhood . . . and well I should be.

One of the world’s largest petroleum companies wants to move next door and pump dry the entire aquifer for an area of 410,000 hectares.

Mind you, the “hood” is huge, roughly the northwest quadrant of British Columbia. But what’s at stake is equally significant.

Ground zero of the proposed project is the famed Spatsizi Wilderness Park, North America’s Serengeti, rich with wildlife from mountain caribou to Stone sheep and grizzly bear.

“My” neighborhood is an exaggeration. But after three decades in the hood, first at the helm of a research foundation radio-collaring caribou and later as a wildlife documentary filmmaker, I feel have a stake in the area’s future. Particularly when the new guy on the block is Royal Dutch Shell.

Last month, the oil giant took full control of Shell Canada, including its exploration rights for coalbed methane in northwest B.C.

Shell calls it the “Mt. Klappan Project.” For everyone else, it’s the “Sacred Headwaters.”

Now, I am not a naive protectionist. Each morning, I cook my eggs with natural gas. It isn’t the product that concerns me, it’s the place and the way coalbed methane is recovered.

You see, the Sacred Headwaters basin is not only the heart of Canada’s richest wildlife region, it’s the birthplace of the Skeena, Stikine and Nass rivers — source of the salmon ecology for the whole northwest coast.

Shell argues that “methane is the cleanest of all hydrocarbon fuels.” But the problem is the water that comes with it.

To get the methane gas that’s trapped as microscopic bubbles in subterranean coal seams, all of the aquifer must be pumped dry, allowing the gas to rise.

This also brings daily to the surface thousands of gallons of water from hundreds of wellheads — water designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a toxic substance, because it is often so contaminated by caustic salt concentrations and heavy metals that it has to be contained forever.

The second problem is that once the gas is liberated, only half of it is captured. The rest is free to come to the surface wherever it can. And pictures of Alberta and Wyoming ranchers lighting their tap water on fire now are common in the news media.

I’m not alone in my concerns, and the battle lines are quickly forming.

On one side are the provincial government, determined to expedite this project at all cost, and a multi-national corporation that’s eager to proceed with it, but not so keen to be seen as “ungreen.” Then there’s everyone else, from native nations to guide-outfitter associations, the B.C. Wildlife Federation and the David Suzuki Foundation, all saying no with equal resolve.

Would you allow one of the world’s largest oil firms to use one of the worst methods of resource extraction at your neighbourhood’s expense?

Neither will I.

Smithers-based filmmaker Monty Bassett can be reached at
outyonder@bulkley.net

© The Vancouver Province 2007