MLAs butt heads over coalbed methane

By Quinn Bender

Bulkley Valley-Stikine MLA Dennis MacKay defended Royal Dutch Shell last week, during a rare legislative debate on the company’s controversial plans to extract coalbed methane from an area known as the Sacred Headwaters.

“To say that we’re going to see degradation and that we’re going to see contamination of the water — that is bunk,” he said, according to draft transcripts of the Legislative Assembly April 14.

“I’ve heard about the degradation for coalbed gas exploration, but in fact there has been no degradation from coalbed gas in British Columbia because we don’t have any commercialization of the product today in our province.”

MacKay pressed the assembly to support the experimentation of safely extracting the gas. He suggested coalbed methane will become the next major source of heat for the province.

“We seem to be in this mindset that, because somebody has an idea, we’ve got to shut it down and that we should shut it down before everybody gets a chance to see whether or not we can do it.”

MacKay’s comments came in response to Skeena MLA Robin Austin’s sharp criticism of the project. He opposed the plan due to its massive and potentially toxic environmental footprint, and the imbalance of economic returns for affected residents.

“In return for a long-term sustainable industry that has the advantage of preserving the quality of our environment and our drinking water, we would get a poison-filled project that would destroy our environment, pollute our drinking water and employ very few people in the long term,” said Austin.

“I think it is wrong-headed of the member for Bulkley Valley-Stikine to suggest it is more important to mine gas than it is to protect a valuable and culturally important resource like wild salmon,” said Austin. “Especially when his constituents are prominent among those calling for a halt to Shell’s activities in the Sacred Headwaters.”

Shell is still in the early stage of developing its exploration program to determine whether they can produce a viable gas operation with more than 1,000 wells throughout a sensitive ecosystem at the headwaters of the Nass, Skeena and Stikine rivers. Shell plans to drill up to four test wells this summer within its 400,000-hectare tenure in the traditional territory of the Tahltan First Nation.

The company has maintained if the gas cannot be extracted without contaminating the watershed with its signature toxic water by-product, the 30-year project will not go ahead.