Derrick Penner, Vancouver Sun, June 16, 2010
VANCOUVER — Energy giant BP's Canadian subsidiary is butting into a new environmental controversy over a proposed East Kootenay coalbed methane project while its Deepwater Horizon well continues to spew oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
A photo posted on Wildsight.ca shows an access road into BP's Mist Mountain coalbed methane exploratory drilling project in early June, 2010. The site is approximately 22km northeast of Fernie, B.C., and has drawn criticism from some locals who fear that BP may not know how to drill safely in the Rockies. (Photograph by: Ryland Nelson, wildsight.ca)
Critics of BP Canada Energy Co's Mist Mountain coalbed methane project say the company caught them by surprise with the start of preparation work for its first test well in what could become a multi-billion development extracting coalbed gas in a 320-square-kilometre area deemed a critical wildlife corridor between B.C. and key national parks in the Alberta Rockies.
"We knew they had planned to start [test drilling] this summer, but that's about as much as we did know," Ryland Nelson, a Fernie-based program coordinator with the conservation group Wildsight said in an interview.
Nelson added that he only discovered on Monday that site-preparation work on the drill site had been underway for two weeks when he went out to take "before" pictures of the location.
He knew BP had won approval to drill a single test well and obtained the well's exact map coordinates from the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission.
"There hadn't been any notification in the local newspaper," Nelson added, and Fernie's city council hadn't been made aware drilling preparations were underway.
"It seems to be quietly starting," he said.
The company, however, said it hasn't set dates for the start of actual drilling because their work has been hampered by rainy weather, but its plans have not been secret.
Company spokeswoman Hejdi Feick said BP will put out a detailed media advisory once it determines when drilling will take place.
"We've been working on this proposed project for three years, had open houses, met with numerous different groups," Feick said in an interview.
"We've been very forthcoming and open with our plans and continue to be, and that's how we will be in the future."
However, Nelson said conservationists have opposed BP's plans within an area known as the Crowsnest Coalfield because, as the narrowest part of the Rocky Mountains, because of its potential to disrupt travel patterns of animals moving between B.C. and the Rocky Mountain and Waterton Glacier national parks.
He added that they also have concerns about water management plans for potential methane-gas production. A great deal of contaminated water is sometimes pumped out of coal methane wells before gas will flow, which can't be discharged on the surface but must be reinjected below ground.
"There are a lot of unknowns about water [disposal]," Nelson said. "It's never been done in a Rocky Mountain environment, it's only ever been done on the plains."
"But our major concern is wildlife connectivity and the sprawling nature of these well pads connected with pipelines, compressor stations, roads and traffic," Nelson said.
He added that the exploration is being done by BP, which is embroiled in the aftermath from the blowout and massive spill from its Gulf of Mexico oil well doesn't help the comfort level of opponents.
Feick said BP "certainly appreciates [the public's] concern, and we welcome their questions," with respect to environmental matters.
Feick added that the company is addressing environmental concerns in the studies that are available on its website, and it is important for people to understand "this is a proposed project, and at no imanent time will there be a development decision."
Graham Currie, corporate affairs leader for the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission, said the commission issued BP a permit at the end of April to drill a test well on just over one hectare of land some 13 kilometres southeast of Sparwood.
Currie said BP's test-well proposal passed its detailed review having satisfied the commission that it would drill on land already disturbed by logging and served by an existing logging road, and would have little impact on wildlife habitat.
Nelson said the public will likely keep up its protest efforts with demonstrations and letter-writing campaigns to government. He will travel to the World Heritage Committee meeting in Brasilia in July to talk to the body about potential impacts development in that region of the Rockies could have on the World Heritage Sites of Rocky Mountain and Waterton Glacier parks.