The valley known as the Sacred Headwaters, located in the remote reaches of Northwestern British Columbia (BC), has been the focus of extensive debate between industry, First Nations, the provincial government, and the public. Here is where three of Canada’s most important salmon-bearing rivers, the Stikine, Skneena and the Nass, begin their course to the Pacific Ocean. Also referred to as the Serengeti of Canada, it is an intact wilderness supporting a diversity of species such as: caribou, grizzly bear, moose, wolf and mountain goats (Claudia 2011, Davis 2010). However, this pristine ecosystem, home of the Tahtan First Nations, is also cursed with having a vast mineral wealth. Although confronted with strong opposition, industrial development of the Sacred Headwaters, with as many as five new mines, has been granted by the BC government (Paulsen 2006). Still, it remains uncertain if the province, through regulation and Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) can properly safeguard the land, water, and wildlife resources (Dogwood Initiative).
The largest development project in the Sacred Headwaters was proposed by Royal Dutch Shell (Davis 2010). It involves extracting coalbed methane (CBM), a “more environmentally friendly” source of energy than oil, coal or even conventional natural gas, which can meet the energy needs of millions of people (CBM Brochure, p.1). CBM is obtained through drilling into coal seams and forcing the natural gas embedded in the seams to the surface by pumping a fluid into the existing natural fractures. A processes known as fracturing. De-watering is also required to release the methane gas from the coal. It involves draining water out from the coal seams (CBM Brochure). In support of sustainable management, the BC government in its 2007 Energy Plan committed to having the best CBM practices in North America, which included, prohibiting all surface discharge of CBM produced water and fully engaging communities and First Nations in decision making (Dogwood Initiative).
Despite the commitments made by the BC government, CBM recovery remains a controversial project. In the Sacred Headwaters basin Royal Dutch Shell holds the rights to an enormous tenure of close to 400,000 hectares, called the Klappan Tenure (Davis 2010). The potential footprint of CBM extraction in the area that’s one eighth the size of Vancouver Island, could be substantial (Vadgama 2008). The CBM extraction requires a network of several thousands wells, linked by roads and pipelines (Davis 2010). These require land clearance and consequently contribute to increased runoff and erosion. The increased amount of sediment entering streams are of particular concern in salmon spawning rivers (Vadgama 2008).
Fracturing and the draining of aquifers also pose major concerns. The chemicals used in fracturing are often toxic and can contaminate groundwater (Dogwood Initiative). Some might be powerful carcinogens, yet companies are not obliged to disclose these chemicals. (Davis 2010). The draining of aquifers can amount to several olympic-size swimming pools of water (Dogwood Initiative). This extraction cause less groundwater to enter streams and thus, affect stream flow. The temperature of streams and the earth would also be affected, with negative effects on soil productivity, salmon-spawning grounds and other wildlife (Vadgama 2008). This is particularly concerning since the use of groundwater in BC is currently unregulated. There is no data on sustainable levels of aquifer drawn-down and an EIA is triggered only when groundwater extraction exceeds 75 litres per second. This standard is much lower than the one adapted by the the Canadian EIA agency, where an assessment is triggered when groundwater extraction exceeds 7 litres per second (Dogwood Initiative).
For the moment opponents of Shell’s CBM development have succeeded in convincing the provincial government in halting the project. There is a moratorium on CDM drilling in the Klappan area until 2012 (Claudia 2011). Nevertheless, residents can not take comfort for long as the date for potential exploration is fast approaching and the province still can not ensure sustainable preservation of the Sacred Headwaters basin. Perhaps it s just too risky to develop certain regions which could be more valuable to society with their ecosystem and cultural heritage preserved.
Wade Davis speaking on the Sacred HeadWaters at TEDxUWO
Claudia, Li. 2011. “Big Energy Threatens BC Wild Salmon and Northern Communities” ForestEthics, accessed November 2, 2011. <http://forestethics.org/sacred-headwaters-tops-endangered-rivers-list-2011>
CBM Brochure. Coalbed Methane in British Columbia. British Columbia Ministry of Energy and Mines. <http://www.em.gov.bc.ca/Mining/Geoscience/Coal/CoalBC/CBM/Pages/CoalbedMethaneBrochurePDF.aspx>
Davis, Wade. 2010. “Violating-the-sacred” Alternates: Environmental Ideas + Action. (37): 1 <http://www.alternativesjournal.ca/articles/violating-the-sacred>
Dogwood Initiative. 2010. “Coalbed Methane: Best Practices for British Columbia” <http://dogwoodinitiative.org/publications/reports/coalbed-methane-best-practices-for-british-columbia>
Paulsen, Monte. 2006. “A Gentle Revolution” The Walrus <http://www.walrusmagazine.com/articles/2006.01-politics-tahltan>
Vadgama, Jaisel. 2008. “Coalbed Methane & Salmon: Energy, Mining and Sustainability in NW British Columbia” The Pembina Institute <http://www.pembina.org/pub/1634>