With oil prices heading skyward, get ready for a manic surge of new exploration at a deposit near you. But don't expect governments to be monitoring the eco hazards when the drilling rigs and steam shovels roll in.
That's what folks concerned about a controversial new source of natural gas, coalbed methane, are quickly realizing. While most other projects that rip into the earth require enviro assessments, there's a loophole a mile wide for "exploration" companies.
So while the provincial Libs like to parade their green credentials, they are quietly ushering through permits to explore coalbed methane in over 250,000 acres in the northern Moose River Basin. A very risky move, warn environmentalists.
"The problem with coalbed methane is that it has a big footprint," says Dale Marshall, climate change policy analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation. "It isn't as concentrated as a conventional reserve. You have to drill a lot more wells, and what you end up with is a more fragmented landscape."
The process involves pumping water out of the coal seam to release the pressure that holds the methane gas in place. This stage can take up to two years before any gas is harvested, and in the meantime the water pumped out may be laced with sodium, arsenic, salt and various metals. This water is dumped into reservoirs or sprayed back out into the atmosphere, killing vegetation and contaminating water supplies.
Ontario is following the example of British Columbia, Alberta (which boasts it is Canada's first producer of natural gas from coalbed methane) and parts of the U.S. Everywhere extraction takes place, environmentalists are in an uproar. But the largest reaction has come from the biggest disaster area, Wyoming.
Says Sami Dinar of that state's Powder River Basin Resource Council, before coalbed methane development in Wyoming began, sufficient baseline info wasn't gathered. Companies were just "pulling out water from the coal seams with high sodium and alkaline" content and then dumping in onto the soil. Soon, cattle ranchers were left with land turned into a "dead pan [where] nothing grows." This prompted a coalition of landowners and environmentalists to launch a lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for its approval of 40,000 new coalbed methane wells in the Powder River Basin.
The council is now conducting seminars to teach Canadians about the nasty side effects of this risk-prone industry.
But Steve Tedesco, president and CEO of Admiral Bay (USA), the company exploring in Moose River, is adamant that his operation won't end in a Wyoming-like debacle. "Every area is different," he says. "If a problem comes up, we'll go find a solution. I'll pull some water off and test it, and then we'll look at it from an environmental standpoint."
The water Admiral Bay expects to find, he says, will be similar to the fresh water already in the surrounding swamp. "I would be very shocked and surprised if any [contaminated water] is produced."
Mark Brennan, president and CEO of Admiral Bay (Canada), insists, "It's way too premature to be rocking [the] boat at this [stage] of the project." He says that even with water considered contaminated, "animals drink [it] and they don't die from it." And if they do hit saline water, "Moose River Basin is the largest swamp in North America, and putting the saline in it won't have an impact."
Environmentalists, however, maintain that this is a dangerous violation of the precautionary principle and that waiting until problems arise and then creating haphazard solutions is exactly what happened in Wyoming.
Karen Campbell, an attorney at West Coast Environmental Law, insists a company-originated enviro assessment is not sufficient. "Somebody other than the company has to do an independent environmental study," she says. "You need at least three years of baseline data before you even begin exploratory projects."
Campbell says the coalbed methane industry is quite wrong about the effects of salt. Research in BC shows "it kills river bottoms and river beds."
Why, then, has Ontario put its swamp lands at risk by neglecting to order an environmental assessment? Because, shockingly, the province doesn't demand assessments for companies that are "exploring."
"For mining explorations, [governments] just attach [minor] conditions," says Justin Duncan, an attorney with Toronto Sierra Legal Defence. "Nationally, there's been a movement to restrict environmental assessments [to] only bigger projects, [because] they are very expensive, and they try to get projects moving along quicker."
At the Ministry of Natural Resources, Terry Carter confirms there will be no official enviro testing. "We just regulate (coalbed methane operations), and there have been no discoveries to report on, so there's no environmental assessment to do."
It's not just ecologists who are worried about the implications of a drill first, worry later policy. The Moose Cree First Nation's treaty land entitlement claim is before the federal government. Chief Norm Hardisty says it's vital for Admiral Bay to be "coming to the community and explaining [its actions]," because whatever waste is pumped into the river basin drains into their fishing lands.
Tedesco claims that "at some point [we] contacted [the Moose Cree]," and as far as he knows, the exploration doesn't fall within the group's claim.
No so on both accounts, Hardisty responds. He says he "hasn't had any correspondence from [Admiral Bay Resources]," and that their 6-million-hectare land claim definitely covers the Moose River Basin.
Strangely, local NDP MPP Gilles Bisson (Timmins-James Bay) knows nothing about Admiral Bay's proceedings. "The coalbed methane idea," he says, "was raised 15 years ago, but to my understanding it was not considered economically viable." Fifteen years ago, of course, the oil and gas industry may not have been as desperate.