A methane battle is brewing

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Back in 1978, a young Wade Davis scored the job of his dreams. Hired as a park ranger to explore and map B.C.'s newly established Spatsizi Plateau Wilderness Park, he had a wonderfully vague job description: wilderness assessment and public relations. In two seasons he "related" to fewer than a dozen visitors.

The Spatsizi belongs to a vast region claimed by the Tahltan people as their traditional territory and is often described as the Serengeti of Canada. It's a mountain wilderness of stunning beauty, occupying almost 700,000 hectares in northwest B.C., an area where some of the province's greatest rivers, including the Nass, Stikine, Finlay, and Skeena, start their journey as trickles in an alpine meadow.

Much has changed for Davis since he hiked, scrambled, and paddled around this region in the late 1970s. As an internationally famous anthropologist and author, Davis has travelled to some of the most fascinating corners of the world, from the Tibetan plateau to the Amazon Basin. Today he has an equally wonderfully vague, although much more prestigious, job title: explorer in residence at the National Geographic Society.

Still, northwestern B.C. remains close to his spiritual core, a place of inspiration. Those youthful encounters with Tlingit and Tahltan elders, guide outfitters, and grizzlies, mountain caribou, and Stone's sheep have figured prominently in his writings over the years and continue to inform his research. In 2004, he published an elegiac feature in National Geographic magazine called "Deep North". He intended the article to be a document of a place with a Stikine River canyon comparable to the Colorado River's Grand Canyon, an astonishing suite of wildlife, and a tradition of First Nations use that has left its trace upon the landscape for generations.

"The Spatsizi is a well that both me and my family have been drinking from for a very long time," Davis tells the Georgia Straight over the phone from Ealue Lake, just outside the northwest boundary of the park, where he purchased property in 1987 and has been returning every summer.

In recent years, there have been ripples in the wild serenity of Tahltan territory, the place that Davis–along with David Suzuki, who also has a residence on Ealue Lake–considers a second home. Because of the booming economies of China and India, once-marginal mineral and fuel deposits in this geologically rich and remote region have piqued the interest of investors and speculators. Now Davis is gearing up for a fight to protect Canada's Serengeti from the spectre of coal-bed methane development. In 2004, the B.C. government awarded mineral rights to Shell Canada Ltd. for the Klappan methane reserve, estimated at eight trillion cubic feet. Shell's proposed development occurs among the small tributaries that give rise to the great salmon systems of the Nass, Stikine, and Skeena rivers, a place in the Klappan Valley the Tahltan people call the "sacred headwaters".

"The Nass, Skeena, and Stikine are all born within a remarkably short distance of each other," Davis says. "This is a place that should be celebrated but instead, without a thought, we are about to violate the very meadows where these rivers are born. The issue is not about development or no development, it's the pace of development, where and for whose benefit. My message to Shell is that this is not the place for this kind of development, at the headwaters of some of our greatest salmon rivers. This kind of development will bring in itinerant labour and won't do anything for the Tahltan."

In the summer of 2004, Shell drilled three exploratory wells; however, the company's activities were derailed after Tahltan elders blockaded the Ealue Lake Road, which leads into the Klappan Valley near the village of Iskut. In September 2005, nine elders were arrested, but the Tahltan are maintaining the blockade. Shell hopes to continue its exploration this summer with 14 more test wells at the headwaters of the Klappan River, a major tributary of the Stikine.

Shell's plans threaten to transform wilderness into an industrial landscape. Much of the concern about coal-bed methane is over water produced during the extraction process. (Methane is a natural gas recovered from coal seams by pumping the water out of the seam; when the pressure in the seam is reduced, the nonsoluble gas can be removed by pipeline.)

The industry is nascent in British Columbia, but it has a spotty environmental track record in the United States, especially in Wyoming and Montana, where coal-bed methane development has fractured the landscape and contaminated water supplies upon which adjacent farmers depend. According to a report by the University of Montana, a single well in that state can produce as much as 72,000 litres of water per day, often laced with naturally occurring chloride, magnesium, calcium, boron, bicarbonate, and other potential toxins.

Shell Canada, which was recently bought by Royal Dutch Shell, represents one in a growing panoply of mining and exploration pressures being brought to bear upon the Tahltan people. NovaGold is about to go into production on one of the richest gold and silver deposits in the country at Galore Creek, while the Red Chris gold and silver mine near Dease Lake, Fortune Minerals' open-pit coal mine on Mt. Klappan, and Coast Mountain Power Corp.'s Forrest Kerr run-of-the-river hydro project are in various stages of permitting and approval. Many in the Tahltan community are feeling under siege. According to Davis, resource-development pressures are compounded by the fact that Tahltan governance is in disarray and ill-equipped to deal with these pressures. Pro-development forces among the Tahltan–such as Jerry Asp, former elected Tahltan chief and president of the Tahltan Nation Development Corporation–are clashing with cautious Tahltan elders. The elders, under the name Klabona Keepers, favour a slow approach to development that puts the environment and traditional rights first. Davis believes government and Shell are exploiting this divide by negotiating with an unaccountable, generally pro-development nonprofit society known as the Tahltan Central Council, which claims to speak for the band. It's a divisive tactic to be expected from corporate interests, Davis says.

"These companies from Howe Street and Bay Street are cobbled together and have no more history or chronology with respect to the land than my dog does," Davis says. "The real question is that this is a decision that should be made by all Canadians and not just local interests."

The words coal-bed methane could be appearing frequently in Davis's day planner in the coming months. He has no problems leveraging his celebrity to bring Shell's plans for the Klappan to the world stage. As the keynote speaker for the 2008 Massey Lectures, Davis suggested that the resource-exploitation crisis facing B.C.'s northwest could form the foundation of his speech. And if necessary, he says, he will take his message straight to the head offices of Royal Dutch Shell in The Hague, Holland.

Until now, conservationists in British Columbia have been surprisingly quiet on this file, mostly deferring to the Tahltan's efforts to raise awareness through the blockade and annual gatherings in the sacred headwaters. Last summer, both Davis and Suzuki attended the gathering. However, opposition to Shell is gathering momentum. The Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition, formed in 2003, has made fighting coal-bed methane in the Klappan its focus.

Shannon McPhail, a fourth-generation Kispiox Valley resident and spokeswoman for the coalition, says both the Tahltan and non-Native residents are aware of Royal Dutch Shell's unsavoury record of dealings with indigenous populations in places like Nigeria's Niger Delta. She says that opposition to coal-bed methane development in the Klappan covers the spectrum from dyed-in-the-wool environmentalists to Natives to loggers, ranchers, and hunters who have never held a protest sign. The bottom line for the coalition is that coal-bed methane will be bad for the environment and livelihood of both Native and non-Native hunters and fishermen in the north. Even worse, McPhail says, there promises to be little in the way of economic benefits going to locals.

"My jaw just dropped when I learned more about this proposal," McPhail says. "They're planning to drill a thousand-plus wells; it would totally industrialize the landscape and there would be 30 or 40 technical jobs for non-locals. It doesn't make any sense no matter how you look at it from an environmental, social, or community perspective. Nobody benefits except the company."

Currently, Shell is in a holding pattern. The one road into the Klappan has been closed by a washout, and the Native blockade remains. Clearly, the company wants to avoid the bad press that would follow if Tahltan elders were once again led away to police vans. But Shell's tenure in the Klappan will expire by 2012, and the company is keen to act on its investment, with hopes of resuming drilling this fall if the road is repaired in time. Environmentalists have been drawing parallels between Royal Dutch Shell's efforts to advance coal-bed methane development in the Klappan and the company's operations in the oil-rich Niger Delta, where human-rights advocates accuse the multinational of not doing nearly enough to stop the Nigerian government's 1995 execution of Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. Critics say that Shell badly mishandled indigenous interests in the region, for which Saro-Wiwa was an outspoken champion.

A Shell Canada representative says that although such accusations might make for good headlines, it's an unfair comparison.

"I don't claim to be an expert on that issue, but Shell has been in Nigeria for a very long time, and we consult with Shell International on how to best address the concerns of indigenous people," says Laurieanne Lynne, Shell's public-affairs spokesperson, from her office in Calgary. "For the last three years, we've been conducting meetings with First Nations, hunters, trappers, environmentalists, and other stakeholders, and that's why things have been at a standstill. All the early indications are that this is a valuable resource, and we're confident that we can move forward."

Shell is also cognizant of the environmental impact of methane extraction in the area. According to Lynne, Shell has committed to trucking away contaminated water from the Klappan and reinjecting it into the ground elsewhere, well below existing aquifers. However, at a potential 17,000 litres of produced water per well per day and a potential 1,000 wells across the Klappan methane field, that could prove to be a cost-prohibitive and technically daunting task.

The promise that Shell consults with its parent company on the issue of indigenous rights is likely cold comfort to the Tahltan, as is the promise of a matrix of pipelines, roads, and wellheads being imposed on the Serengeti of Canada, a largely roadless wilderness of astonishing beauty. For Davis, it's tantamount to defiling a place of spiritual worship.

"Violating a place like Mt. Kailash [a mountain in Tibet sacred to billions of people] would be anathema to Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. How can it be that in the economic calculus surrounding these types of resource developments, there is no value attached to leaving the land in its natural state?" Davis asks. "That's the luxury of abundance that we have in Canada. From an anthropologist's point of view, the symbolism is compelling. Drilling for coal-bed methane here is like a junkie sticking a needle into his vein."