Silence on the Sacred Headwaters: What happens next?

Silence on the Sacred Headwaters: What happens next?

👤Amanda Follett Hosgood 🕔Dec 01, 2012

As the clock winds down on the province’s moratorium on coalbed methane drilling, the Ministry of Energy and Mines remains tight-lipped about its plans for northern BC’s Sacred Headwaters.

In 2008, the BC government imposed a temporary ban on coalbed methane exploration in the province, following pressure from First Nations, local residents and conservation groups opposed to drilling in the ecologically sensitive Sacred Headwaters, also known as the Klappan. When the moratorium expired two years later, the province responded by extending it another two years.

That period ends in late December. But many are left wondering what the government’s next steps will be.

“I find it pretty disturbing that after three-and-a-half years the BC Liberals can’t give any indication of the progress they’ve been making or have made,” says Doug Donaldson, MLA for Stikine, and New Democrat mining critic and deputy critic for energy and natural gas. “This is a pretty major issue. The government should be transparent on the progress they’re making.”

In 2004, the province granted a tenure to Royal Dutch Shell to drill for coalbed methane in the Sacred Headwaters, which marks the starting point for three of BC’s most prominent rivers: the Stikine, the Nass and the Skeena. The oil and gas company drilled three test wells in the area before being forcefully asked to leave by the Tahltan elders. The following year, a roadblock at the Klappan River Road turnoff resulted in the arrest of several Tahltan elders.

The moratorium’s original purpose, Donaldson says, was to consult with First Nations and local communities. More than two years ago, when he stood up in the legislature and asked then-energy minister Blair Lekstrom for a progress update, he received no answer, Donaldson says.

“People locally and provincially would like some answers and some certainty about what the government intends to do,” he says.

A nebulous position A Ministry of Energy and Mines information officer, who asked to be identified only as a ministry spokesperson, said in an emailed statement that, “The province is talking with Shell, First Nations and local stakeholders right now. Our intent is to explore options for the future of the area and reach an agreement before the period-of-inactivity agreement is scheduled to expire in December.”

The ministry said further details would be made available when a mutual agreement is reached.

Shell Canada spokesperson David Williams echoed the province’s nebulous response, saying only: “We have no exploration activities and we have no plans to do so.” Williams confirmed that Shell continues to talk with government and First Nations, but wouldn’t comment on whether Shell would walk away from its investments in the Klappan.

There is speculation that the province may have backed itself into a corner by granting a legal tenure to Shell before proper consultation with First Nations and local residents. If it were to cancel the tenure, BC taxpayers could be looking at paying millions in compensation to the oil and gas giant, fears Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition (SWCC) executive director Shannon McPhail.

“I think Shell is going to end up with a sweet deal and BC taxpayers are going to have to pay it back,” McPhail says.

According to legal documents obtained by ForestEthics Advocacy, Shell spent $14 million in exploration activities in its first year in the Klappan and several million more in rent. Shell also spent several million upgrading the Klappan River Road into the Sacred Headwaters in 2007, for a total investment in the neighbourhood of $20 million.

But having the province buy its way out of its contract with Shell isn’t the only thing McPhail is concerned about: “The other thing I’m worried about is that they’re just going to continue the moratorium.”

McPhail started SWCC in 2004 in response to upstream threats to her home in the Skeena watershed. She says continuing to extend the moratorium, and leave local residents in limbo, is a kick in the pants to everyone who’s been working to fight the project for nearly a decade: “Then nothing’s resolved. People don’t have certainty.”

“I would like to see government and Shell step up and be the champions of this,” she adds. “I really think Shell can be a leader. I would like them to invest in conservation planning.”

Incentives to settle Royal Dutch Shell might have a bigger incentive for settling its differences with communities downstream from the Sacred Headwaters. Its proposal to build a liquid natural gas (LNG) plant in Kitimat along with three Asian partners would not be well received if the Sacred Headwaters remains an “open wound,” McPhail says.

In fact, four LNG plants are currently proposed for Kitimat—which could also face an oil-tanker terminal and oil-tanker traffic if the controversial Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline goes ahead—but according to Donaldson, the local Haisla Nation has not been consulted on any of the LNG plants currently proposed for its territory. The risk, he notes, is ending up with a similar stalemate to the one in the Sacred Headwaters.

“That’s a problem with going ahead and granting tenures when you don’t have the social licence that goes along with that,” he says.

“What we’re advocating is that the BC Liberals—the government—work hard to conclude a land designation process with Tahltan and local community that ensures coalbed methane development will not take place in the Sacred Headwaters,” he says. “It’s the Tahltan’s own backyard that they use for lots of purposes.”

Tahltan Central Council (TCC) president Annita McPhee also couldn’t comment on the details of what is being discussed between her government and the province, but said the fact that discussions are happening is a positive start.

“We do have a government-to-government framework where we’re speaking with the government. We have an opportunity to talk about these issues,” she says, adding: “We’re always going to push for protection in the Klappan.”

Place of tremendous importance In September, the Tahltan Central Council released a statement about Fortune Minerals’ Arctos Anthracite mine project, which is located in the Klappan and currently undergoing a provincial environmental assessment. In the statement, the TCC reiterates that the Klappan “is one of the most sacred and important areas for the Tahltan people” and “a place of tremendous cultural, spiritual, and social importance.”

The statement notes that the Tahltan Nation has endorsed other development projects, most recent examples being the Forest Kerr, Volcano, and McLymont run-of-river power projects, and is open to some development in its territory, but has no interest in seeing resource extraction in the Klappan.

“We want to have an economy, but at the same time we want to maintain our way of life. Having sustenance, having moose, having clean water. Those aren’t just Tahltan issues, that’s for humanity,” McPhee says. “Our people just want to ensure that they’re maintaining their way of life. There’s huge concerns about coalbed methane and coal.”

Meanwhile, northern BC residents wait to hear whether the provincial government will buy, beg or bargain its way out of an agreement that many feel was ill conceived from the start—or whether it will delay a decision for another two years.