The main item of contention here is the North Fork of the Flathead River, which flows from headwaters in B.C. across the U.S. border along the west side of Montana’s Glacier National Park, one of the jewels of the U.S. national park system, and into Flathead Lake.
You could be forgiven for thinking that everything is rosy between B.C. and its southern neighbours. California’s Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger goes out of his way to say nice things about B.C., Gordon Campbell, global warming policy, the hydrogen highway and all the other neat environmental stuff on which the two jurisdictions see eye to eye. (Never mind that California still owes B.C. millions of dollars for electricity sales dating back five years.) But cast a glance to the southeast corner of the province, where the neighbour to the south is Montana, and it’s a different story entirely. In fact it is getting quite nasty as the two jurisdictions wrestle with profound disagreements over proposals for resource development in B.C. Within the last few weeks, Campbell and his Montana counterpart Governor Brian Schweitzer have exchanged very toughly-worded letters, each taking issue with the other’s environmental performance. The main item of contention here is the North Fork of the Flathead River, which flows from headwaters in B.C. across the U.S. border along the west side of Montana’s Glacier National Park, one of the jewels of the U.S. national park system, and into Flathead Lake. Says Schweitzer: B.C. is violating a 2003 Environmental Cooperation Arrangement by allowing two coal-based resource projects in the Flathead River area to enter the early stages of permitting – projects that would never be allowed to proceed on the Montana side of the border. Retorts Campbell: the main reason Montana is concerned about the Flathead is because the rest of the state has already been industrialized, often with exactly the same kinds of projects B.C. is looking at. Further, he tells Montana it’s got bigger worries than B.C.: “The single most important threat to the environment of the Flathead basin at this time is in fact outside the region: climate change. I understand scientists, including Montana scientists, predict there may be no glaciers in Montana’s Glacier National Park by 2030 or sooner due to global warming.” Montana residents don’t want anyone messing with their river, and they have brought some very heavy political pressure to bear: Governor Schweitzer, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester are all on board the effort to stymie any B.C. development. In the early stages of this issue, the language from Montana was fairly diplomatic. No more. Senator Baucus in particular has vowed a fight to the finish. “I’ve been fighting to protect water quality and wildlife in the Flathead Valley for 30 years,” Baucus says in a press release posted on his website in September. “I’m not about to give up now. We’re going to do whatever it takes to stop energy development north of our border. We’re pulling out all the stops. The gloves are off.” “Don’t tell us what to do” is the rejoinder from our side of the border. Provincial politicians – at least those in government, which leaves out the Green Party of B.C. – are convinced the province’s environmental protections are sufficient to allow resource development without compromising water quality in the Flathead River. They won’t rule out such development. Further complicating this political maelstrom is the fact that there are lots of people on the B.C. side of the border who agree with Montana’s position. And then there are people who see the assault on B.C.’s environmental performance as hypocritical, given Governor Schweitzer’s passion for coal mining and coal-fired and coal-to-liquid power plants in Montana. B.C.’s minister of state for mining, Kevin Krueger, puts it bluntly: “It’s preposterous for Montana to presume to challenge B.C. on anything to do with mineral extraction and protection of the environment. In the Flathead Valley, we own six per cent of that valley; they own 94 per cent. Ours is pristine and very well cared for. Meantime, profound concerns are expressed about how Montana is not looking after the Flathead. We deliver pristine mountain water to the border.” Schweitzer retorts in his letter that none of the resource proposals now under consideration in B.C. would be allowed in the Montana portion of the Flathead River: “South of the 49th parallel, the Flathead watershed is one of the most protected ecosystems in the continental United States.” This cross-border irritant has been bubbling under the surface for decades. The last time the idea of a coal mine was put forward in B.C. was in 1985 (on Cabin Creek, a tributary of the Flathead). The U.S. and Canadian governments referred the proposal (they disagreed then too) to the International Joint Commission set up by the two countries to mediate cross-border water disputes. Fearing impacts on bull trout in the Flathead, the commission recommended against it. For nearly 30 years, the issue lay dormant, but a global energy crisis, surging demand for all forms of coal and a North American natural-gas supply crunch put this part of B.C. back on the radar screens of a number of energy companies eager to exploit those parts of the Crowsnest coal field that haven’t already been developed. There are already five operating coal mines, and there is some coal-bed methane exploration taking place in the Elk River drainage. Specifically, Sudbury, Ontario-based Cline Mining Corp. came forward with its Lodgepole project, a plan to mine and export some 40 million tonnes of metallurgical coal over the next 20 years, and earlier this year Calgary-based BP Canada Energy Co. introduced a plan to explore and eventually (if the exploration plays out) develop a $3-billion coal-bed methane project just north of the proposed Cline mine site. First out of the blocks nearly two years ago, the Cline proposal immediately raised concern among environmentalists and some community leaders in B.C. and Montana, as well as senior U.S. politicians. Adding fuel to their campaign is a long-standing desire among environmental activists to add portions of the Canadian Flathead to Alberta’s Waterton Lakes National Park, extending that park well into B.C. (and enveloping in the process the existing tiny Akamina-Kishinena Provincial Park that currently fits snugly in the very southeast corner of B.C. that butts up against Alberta and Montana). They were already geared up to fight when the BP Canada plan came along last spring, seriously upping the ante. Cline is a relatively small coal-mining company; BP Canada is the subsidiary of an energy giant, the world’s largest coal-bed methane producer. With all that as a backdrop, B.C. and Montana are trying, without much success, to come up with a means of satisfying Montana’s desire for a clean Flathead River without compromising the province’s desire to make its own decisions about what kind of resource projects can go forward in southeast B.C. In 2003 then Montana governor Judy Martz and Premier Campbell signed an environmental co-operation agreement in hopes that the two jurisdictions could go on to develop project-assessment criteria, in particular an environmental assessment, that both would agree on. In nearly two years of negotiations, with Governor Schweitzer succeeding Martz, it hasn’t happened. The two jurisdictions have not even had face-to-face talks on the topic since December of 2006. “We’re at a little bit of an impasse, but we haven’t given up,” says B.C. Minister of State for Intergovernmental Relations John van Dongen. “We’re working on it.” Since that statement, unfortunately, the positions have hardened. In his letter, Schweitzer formally rejected the action plan drawn up by officials from the two jurisdictions and suggested the two sides get together in December to talk about it. Campbell, in his reply, expressed “surprise and disappointment” at Schweitzer’s rejection, urged him to reconsider and said he is not interested in a meeting “simply to discuss unilateral concessions to the land use decisions of one jurisdiction [i.e., B.C.].” The battle revolves around a stark difference of opinion over process – what should happen and when. Montana wants all development processes stopped until comprehensive baseline environmental data is collected from a wide region. It wants cumulative impacts assessed as well. B.C. argues that baseline data should be collected through the environmental-assessment process for a specific project and that project applications should move forward with that process in place. “Bear in mind this is a long-standing conflict with very strong views on both sides,” van Dongen says. “But to say ‘do nothing,’ that’s where the rub comes. We have a cordial and respectful relationship, but we have been upfront with [Governor Schweitzer]. We’re not prepared to say no development. We won’t bargain away that option.” Van Dongen points out that the environmental assessment now underway for the Cline mine proposal includes participation by Montana officials. Meanwhile the two proponents are taking somewhat different approaches to the controversy in which they are both mired, starting with their project aspirations. Cline started down the permitting road in 2006, and CEO Ken Bates expressed great optimism that Montana’s participation in the process (nine Montana representatives were on board) would not slow the project down. As of summer 2007, little progress had been made on the application, and Bates is not very keen to talk about it. “You just want to write an interesting story,” he says when contacted for this article. “I don’t want us to get mired in controversy. We’re just doing the permitting. This is bringing a mine in; it’s not a show. If you want to bring in the governor and premier and involve all those guys – it’s got to be interesting.” Bates goes on to say that he has little more to add about his mine proposal other than to emphasize that Cline will not “push the process” to meet a deadline. “When we have something to say, we put out a press release,” he declares. “The deposit has been there a long time. We’re happy with the pace.” BP Canada officials, on the other hand, are happy to talk about their project and have taken their project dog-and-pony show into Governor Schweitzer’s office as well as to Senator Max Baucus’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. The effect of that approach, unfortunately for BP, has been to raise the project profile considerably on the radar screens of those in Montana who would like to stop it dead in its tracks. Both Baucus and his colleague Jon Tester hauled BP Canada and BP America senior executives into separate meetings in early September and told them bluntly not to apply for any permits for their Canadian project unless they wanted a knock-down, dragged-out fight with Montana on their hands. Christopher Revington is BP Canada’s VP for coal-bed gas, and he is heading the Mist Mountain project, which covers 500 square kilometres of the Crowsnest coal field. What BP Canada has in mind is a three-to-five-year exploratory program with expenditures of $2 million to $3 million a year. It started environmental baseline-data collection this summer, has already applied for permits and expects to drill the first exploratory wells in the summer of 2008. Should it prove economically and environmentally feasible, Revington estimates the project would require about $3 billion in capital investment and that it could generate $2 billion in provincial gas royalties, $2 billion in corporate taxes and 250 permanent jobs over the life of the project. The big environmental issue with most coal-bed methane projects is the disposal of water from the coal seams, produced before the gas can flow. The water is often contaminated with salts and other chemicals. The preferred disposal method (and required by regulation in B.C.) is what’s known as “re-injecting,” a process of returning the water to the geological formation from which it came. “I want to be really clear on BP’s position,” Revington says. “We will not surface-dispose any produced water. Guarantee. If we can’t figure out how to handle the water properly in the three- to five-year appraisal period, the project will not go ahead.” Revington is well aware of the general level of opposition to coal-bed methane projects, based on widespread knowledge of some serious water issues related to such projects in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. Revington says BP routinely re-injects 55,000 barrels of water a day with what he calls state-of-the-art technology in Colorado’s San Juan Basin. But is he convincing Montana residents? “Montana? I really would like to reassure them of that message. Anyone we meet from Montana, we always tell them that,” he says. “I’m not sure they always hear us.” Governor Schweitzer’s natural resources adviser Mike Volesky confirms that sentiment: “They certainly tried to give us assurances, but any company involved in mineral extraction gives you the same assurances. Not all of them follow up. There’s a different idea about what those assurances mean. Until that’s all assessed and in black and white and they make assurances on paper, no one knows they have them.” BP Canada and Cline may satisfy a provincial environmental assessment (or, as requested by Montana for the Cline project, a joint Canadian federal and provincial process) that they can mitigate any environmental impacts, particularly on water quality in the Flathead River and its tributaries. But the odds of them satisfying anyone in Montana are not high. Montana has nothing to gain from these projects and a lot to lose. Van Dongen concedes that this issue could well end up, once again, before the International Joint Commission. Schweitzer and Condoleezza Rice have already pressed for just such a review. And that’s where the word “hypocrisy” comes into play. Neither van Dongen nor Mines Minister Krueger would use the word in referring to Schweitzer’s opposition to coal mining and coal-bed methane in B.C. while pushing very hard for exactly that kind of development in other parts of Montana. But environmentalists in Montana don’t hesitate. Anne Hedges is program director for the Montana Environmental Information Center in Helena, Montana, and she has some harsh words for the governor, particularly on his support for using the state’s coal reserves. “He talks big about things out of state, but when it comes in state he just wants to ‘giddy-up’ is how he puts it. And that’s hypocrisy. He is the biggest advocate for burning more coal, and he says he wants it to be done right, but we have no solid commitments that it will be required to be done right,” Hedges says. “Talk is cheap.” Hedges is particularly disappointed with Schweitzer’s euphemisms for coal mining: “What he has called it in the past is ‘deep farming.’ That’s a vile phrase. He’s been quoted as saying that’s just ‘deep farming’ – you dig it up, you take it out and cover it back up with grass.” Hedges also challenges Schweitzer’s insistence that he has a “green” agenda: “He loves to say that. He says he wants all the CO2 [emissions from coal-fired generating stations] to be geologically sequestered. Well, we certainly support geological sequestration, but we should figure out how to do it first.” Bruce Farling of Montana’s Trout Unlimited isn’t quite as hard on Schweitzer because the governor’s been largely supportive of keeping water in rivers and keeping it clean. Farling also understands the concerns about potential impacts on the Flathead River, which he described as one of the healthiest and cleanest rivers in the U.S. But he too has issues: “[Schweitzer] is great at the bully pulpit talking about how important is clean water, fish, wildlife, wilderness, open spaces. But there’s saying you’re supportive and then there’s acting like you are supportive.” Farling too is unhappy with the governor’s penchant for pushing coal, suggesting that his pronouncements on clean coal “need to be challenged.” Schweitzer’s adviser, Mike Volesky, points out that the coal developments the governor is pushing for are in arid, relatively flat areas with nothing like the scenic or the wildlife values present in the Canadian Flathead. Van Dongen is prepared to cut the governor some slack on that score. “There are legitimate arguments to be made that maybe other parts of Montana don’t have the same environmental values as the Flathead. The governor understands both sides. He understands that energy is a big issue in North America; he’s a proponent of a North American energy plan. He also understands the environmental concerns of his constituents in the Flathead.” What would help to resolve this cross-border irritant is an agreement on the fundamentals – such as what level of baseline environmental data is needed to make decisions on resource development. But that’s exactly what both sides cannot agree upon. And this dispute is moving rapidly in the other direction. At press time, Governor Schweitzer had not yet responded to Campbell’s shot across his bow, nor had Senators Baucus and Tester (the premier copied them both on his reply). Baucus in particular, who chairs the all-powerful U.S. Senate Committee on Finance, is not known for offering olive branches to Canada on any cross-border disputes. He is best known for championing the U.S. fight against Canadian softwood lumber imports, and that has always ended badly for Canada.