Four years after the British Columbia government surprisingly announced a temporary ban on coal bed methane development in the Sacred Headwaters, the stage is set for a dramatic reprise.
On Tuesday the moratorium that has kept Shell Canada from drilling in the 400,000-hectare tenure expires.
Which way will the B.C. government go?
Given the financial debt the province is carrying, any new oil and gas activity would be welcomed. And Shell is hardly the kind of player you want to risk alienating in these troubled economic times.
For purely economic reasons then, lifting the moratorium would make a lot of sense.
But fracking, the fracturing of rock deep underground to release gas deposits, remains highly controversial, and there is growing concern about the practice in B.C.
First nations in particular are alarmed by all the activity taking place in the north, with exploration roads and pipelines crossing the habitat of endangered caribou, and companies applying for licences that would let them draw off billions of litres of water.
Allowing a gas company to go into the Sacred Headwaters, a region that gets its name because three great salmon rivers are born there, would in effect be a declaration by the government that all of B.C. is open to fracking. It would be an anywhere, any-time, bring-it-on kind of deal.
That would trigger an outcry by first nations and environmental groups, including those with international connections. And it would mean a messy confrontation for the B.C. government in the six months leading up to the next election.
As she heads to the polls next year, does B.C. Premier Christy Clark really want to be dealing with road blockades, where elders are getting arrested in front of television news crews?
Likely not. So even if the government isn’t worried about the salmon in the headwaters of the Skeena, Nass and Stikine Rivers, it is concerned about its environmental image – and that means it will have to extend the moratorium.
And an extension makes sense because with gas prices soft, Shell really doesn’t need to be active in the Sacred Headwaters immediately anyway, so industry is unlikely to complain. Shell might even endorse the move, meaning a delay in drilling activity for a year or two could placate both sides, and allow the government to position itself as being cautiously in favour of development.
An extension on the moratorium would also deflect attention away from the northeast gas fields, where first nations are clamouring for restrictions on water licences.
But an extension, rather than an outright ban on fracking in the Sacred Headwaters, is only a temporary political solution. The problem is still going to be there the next time the deadline comes around, because fracking next to salmon rivers is never going to be acceptable to first nations.
A bold government would kick Shell out of the Sacred Headwaters, declare the area protected, and use the moment to underscore B.C.’s opposition to the Enbridge pipeline.
By saying no to fracking in the Sacred Headwaters, the province would demonstrate that its opposition to Enbridge is not based on xenophobia about Albertans and their massive oil deposits, but is about an environmental value system that puts salmon first.
That would undercut the NDP, which has called only for an extension in the Sacred Headwaters, not an outright ban.
By going green, the Liberals could raise doubts about just how environmentally friendly an NDP government would be when faced by construction unions which are keen on big resource developments.
Ms. Clark has not demonstrated a flair for the bold move so far, but she has a chance this week in the Sacred Headwaters.
Editor's Note: A coal bed methane development in the Sacred Headwaters in British Columbia is 400,000 hectares. An incorrect size of the tenure was published in print Monday and in an earlier online version of this story. This version has been corrected.