The Campbell administration has been wrangling with Ottawa for at least the past four years to open up development in the Dominion Coal Blocks - a 20,235 hectare chunk of federally-owned, resource-rich land in the East Kootenays. But good luck finding out what's on the negotiating table from the provincial government. In response to a freedom of information request, Public Eye has received 50-pages of correspondence between Victoria and the federal governments detailing those discussions. But most of the information on those pages has been severed because their release could be "harmful to intergovernmental relations or negotiations."
The records do, however, show securing provincial access to the blocks would make it a lot easier for companies to tap into the coalbed methane gas deposits located in the surrounding Crowsnest coalfield. And that has environmentalists concerned.
In an email to Public Eye, Wildsight energy and mining program manager Casey Brennan says this is another example of how the "provincial government has fully adopted the Alberta governance model of 'have our cake and eat it too'. They are attempting to turn every piece of this province including protected areas into marketable commodities."
But "the long term cumulative impact of rapidly expanding front country recreation and lifestyle development and backcountry industrial tourism and resource extraction is being completely ignored. We as stewards of our own provincial land are being let down by the people we elected to direct land use and protecting our natural heritage." The following is a complete copy of the relevant portion of those records.
The Dominion Coal Blocks
Briefing paper prepared by the British Columbia Ministry of Energy and Mines for the Department of Natural Resources Canada
October 15, 2003
Summary: Removal of uncertainty surrounding the management of and access to subsurface resources in the Dominion Coal Blocks (DCB) is expected to have a significant positive impact on the private sector's ability to develop subsurface resources in the surrounding Crowsnest coalfield. By working together, the province and federal government could advance prospective economic development in the area, for the benefit of local residents and First Nations.
What are the Dominion Coal Blocks (DCB)?
The DCB are two parcles of land located in the east Kootenay region of British Columbia, which total 20,235 ha (50,000 acres) in size (see attached map). The federal interest in the DCB arose through a transfer from the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) in 1905. The CPR became entitled to the parcles through its association with a railway company located in the Kootenays. The Kootenay railway company had original acquired the parcels (and other lands) through a grant of the surface and coal from the provincial government. The result is that the federal government owns the surface and any coal in the DCB, and the province owns all other subsurface resources, including petroleum and natural gas.
Coal Resources in the DCB
The DCB are located in the Crowsnest coalfield, which is approximately 60,000 ha in size. The smaller, northern parcel of the DCB (parcel 73) is estimated to have a total coal resource of 76 million tonnes accessible through surface mining.
Teck Cominco Limited (Teck Cominco) is the owner of the surface and coal in the lands surrounding Parcel 73. Teck Cominco operates the open pit Elkview coal mine approximately eight kilometres north of Parcel 73. The southern and larger parcel (parcel 82) has an estimated coal resource of 230 million tonnes accessible through underground mining. Fording Canadian Coal Trust (Fording) operates the open put Coal Mountain coal mine approximately five kilometres to the east of Parcel 82.
(s. 21, 16)
The two coal companies have recently joined together to form the Elk Valley Coal Partnership.
The federal ownership of the coal in the DCB has created uncertainty for both industry and the province as to how development would be managed.
Coalbed Gas (CBG) Resources in the DCB
In addition to the coal resource, approximately 6.57 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of the 12 tcf of coalbed gas (CBG) (also known as coalbed methane gas) currently estimated to be found in the Crowsnest coalfield is located in the DCB.
In April 2003, the province passed the Coalbed Gas Act, which confirmed that CBG is a natural gas owned by the owner of the natural gas. Except for a few small parcels owned by Shell Canada, the province owns all petroleum and natural gas rights in the Crowsnest coalfield.
To make CBG development economic, producers require large contiguous areas for exploration and production.
(s. 16, 21)
The prospects for development of CBG in the Crowsnest coalfield would be generally enhanced by providing the same tenure and resource management regime in the DCB as in the surrounding provincially owned areas. As noted, companies require large contiguous areas for CBG development. Uncertainty associated with the DCB complicate the province's ability to provide tenure to meet these needs.
Access to other Petroleum and Natural Gas Resources
(s. 16), the province is the owner of petroleum and natural gas. On other lands in the province, if there are problems between the petroleum and natural gas tenure holder and the surface owner, the Mediation and Arbitration Board can approve the terms of surface access. With respect to tenure on the DCB, it is unclear both as to how a tenure holder would acquire surface access and as to how issues relating to that access would be resolved.
First Nation Interests
The Crowsnest coalfield lies within the asserted traditional territory of the Ktunaxa/Kinbasket Tribal Council (K/KTC).
Future of the DCB
Until the 1980's, the federal government had interests in coal lands in other provinces. All of these coal lands were returned to the provinces in question.