CBC News: Under the ground in the B.C. Peace lies Canada’s largest potential source of greenhouse gases. Some want to leave it there. Others say we need the energy. One First Nation is uniquely positioned to play a key role.
Elder Jerry Davis pulls his pickup truck over to the side of a road on his family’s trapline and points out a stand of trees. They are short, bare and brown and their trunks are thin. This used to be a thick spruce forest, Davis says, home to the moose his people depended on for sustenance and the animals they used to trap for fur.
“Now see how sick it is?” he asks. “Nothing can live in there.” “It’s all logged, as you can see,” adds Wayne Yahey, a councillor with Blueberry River First Nations. A gas tanker speeds past Davis’s truck, showering it with dirty snow and gravel. He shakes his head sadly. “See what happens? These guys, they don’t slow down. They just go.”
After decades of seeing their lands sold off by the province and exploited by resource companies, Blueberry River First Nations won a landmark case in 2021. A B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled the province had breached the nation’s treaty rights by allowing so much disturbance it was impossible for the community to maintain its way of life.
That ruling led to an agreement with the province in January that gives Blueberry River the power to determine where and how new development proceeds. The implications go far beyond Treaty 8 territory. The nation sits on what researchers call a “carbon bomb” — that, if fully tapped, would become Canada’s largest source of greenhouse gasses and among the largest in the world.
Scientists and environmentalists warn pursuing such projects would have catastrophic consequences for the global climate. But industry and governments are heavily invested. All of this leaves Blueberry River First Nations — itself in need of cash — at a difficult crossroads.
On top of a ‘carbon bomb’
When Treaty 8 was signed in 1900, no one had drilled for natural gas in the B.C. Peace region. Today, gas well pads, clear cuts and fenced-off farmland mark the landscape of Davis’s trapline every couple of kilometres. Because of this, he’s cut off from more than three quarters of it.
Blueberry River First Nations have dealt with oil and gas development for decades, accelerating since the 1990s. Elder Jerry Davis says he’s now cut off from most of his trapline. It’s a similar story throughout the first nation’s territory — about three-quarters of the land is within 250 metres of an industrial disturbance like a road or a pipeline.
A major factor driving that development in Blueberry River territory has been the vast energy reserve below ground. It sits at the centre of a 130,000 square kilometre natural gas reserve called the Montney Play straddling the B.C.-Alberta border.
There is enough gas in the Montney to last the country 140 years, according to the Canada Energy Regulator. While it’s not clear how quickly that will all be tapped, there are already tens of thousands of wells in the area and the annual reports of companies active in the area — and data from the B.C. Energy Regulator — reveal plans for thousands more.
But also lurking under the ground, if all those reserves are tapped and burned, is a potentially catastrophic amount of greenhouse gas emissions — 13.7 billion tonnes — or about 19 times Canada’s total emissions from all sources in 2019.
It is Canada’s largest potential source of greenhouse gas emissions and the sixth-largest in the world — something researchers such as Kjell Kühne call a “carbon bomb.” He and his team identified 425 fossil fuel projects around the world with more than a billion tonnes of potential CO2 equivalent emissions still in the ground and publishedtheir results in the journal Energy Policy last year. According to his research, Canada has the seventh-highest potential emissions in the world.
Exploiting those fossil fuel reserves is at odds with what decades of research say is needed to avoid catastrophic climate change. Both the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change have stated there can be no new investment in fossil fuel exploration or development if the world is to decarbonize its energy systems by 2050 and avoid warming of more than 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels.
New investments in fossil fuel projects with decades-long timelines essentially represent a bet against humanity taking the action needed to avoid climate crisis, Kühne says. “You are basically betting on humanity continuing to burn down the house at the same rate in order for you to make money, and that is a very risky bet.”
South of the Blueberry River First Nations, the northeastern B.C. town of Fort St. John bills itself as “The Energetic City.” It’s where Peace River North MLA Dan Davies of the opposition B.C. Liberal Party was born and raised. “My family, my father all grew up in the only gas industry,” he said. “It really is the heart of northeastern B.C.”
Davies says he’s not sure it’s possible to meet climate targets. He argues that expanding production of natural gas is essential not only to make money for the province and sustain the local economy, but also to help other parts of the world wean off dirtier forms of energy. “The globe is in this climate crisis right now. So how do we then make an impact? That impact is us providing India, us providing China, us providing Europe the alternate means of natural gas as opposed to them using coal,” he said.
.“So do we need to continue to invest in the oil and gas industry? … I think we do until we get that timeline sorted out. “I would say we’re 100 years away from being off fossil fuels.”
The argument that natural gas is needed to wean off coal is a common one, and it’s true that burning natural gas has lower emissions than coal, which is why in 2019 the IEA said energy switching using existing infrastructure could be a “quick win” to cut emissions in the short term.
But, the IEA wrote, “it is clear that switching between unabated consumption of fossil fuels, on its own, does not provide a long-term answer to climate change.” A recent analysis suggests investing more in natural gas infrastructure makes catastrophic warming above 2 C more likely.
Kühne, who calls natural gas “fossil gas,” says it’s dangerous to consider the fuel, which is mostly methane, any kind of climate solution. “The near-term climate impacts of that gas are very very significant,” he said. “Comparing fossil gas with coal is basically calling it cleaner pollution.”
Most of the gas in the Montney has to be extracted by hydraulic fracturing — a process better known as fracking, which blasts water, sand and chemicals at high pressure more than two kilometres underground to release natural gas trapped in rock.
Natural gas is primarily methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and fracking lets large amounts escape. “Methane is the worst thing you could put in the air in a situation where we’re trying to stabilize the climate on planet Earth, because methane is a supercharged greenhouse gas,” said Kühne, director of the Leave It In The Ground Initiative.
“It’s over 100 times more potent than CO2 while it is in the air. And the gas that’s getting fracked up there is methane. You want to leave that in the ground.”
Another side effect of fracking is earthquakes. More than 400 earthquakes in the Montney had a close association with fracking between 2013 and 2019, according to research published in 2021 by Allan Chapman in the Journal of Geoscience and Environment Protection. “It is probable that induced earthquakes of [greater than magnitude 5] will occur in the future. There are significant public safety and infrastructure risks associated with future hydraulic fracturing-induced earthquakes in the Peace River area,” Chapman wrote.
‘They destroyed the water’
Back on Jerry Davis’s trapline, mention the term fracking and the first thing that comes up is earthquakes. There was one just recently near Dawson Creek, Davis says, a couple of hours to the south. He worries about what more fracking will do to the land.
Councillor Wayne Yahey is concerned about the large amounts of water needed to frack gas. “They’re finding always new methods of extracting the gas and now knowing a bit about that process … obviously there’s a big concern about water and the lack of water.”
When Davis and Yahey were young, they used to be able to drink the water from the Blueberry River and its tributaries. This sustained them for weeks at a time in the woods, where they used to hunt enough moose to last the winter and trap animals for furs. These times were what Davis calls his people’s “happy days.”
Now, the water in the river is undrinkable and they have to carry bottled water with them.
Davis blames the gas industry. “When they take that gas out, that gas itself goes up in the air and it comes down, polluted that whole country. There’s no berries. And the water, they destroyed the water.” Water is also top of mind for Mae Whyte as well as she stands on a bluff on a clear, cold day looking out over the frozen Blueberry River far below.
“In 2017, the Blueberry River ran dry for the first time in recorded memory,” said Whyte, manager of restoration for Blueberry River First Nations. The reasons why this happened are unclear, Whyte says, but sedimentation from the many unpaved roads on the territory created for logging or oil and gas likely played a role. It gets into the waterways, affecting aquatic animals and even smothering eggs in the streams.
Community members used to be able to eat fish such as bull trout from the river, Whyte said. That is no longer the case. The environmental challenges that lie ahead for Blueberry River are significant, Whyte says, but also exciting, because they now have help in the form of a $200 million land restoration fund from the B.C. government.
“The oil and gas economy here has had a boom and bust cycle. And with limits on new development in Blueberry … we’re going to be looking at ways to optimize our extraction of natural resources, if you will, so that the current footprint is maintained.”
‘Necessary work can now proceed’
The January 2023 agreement between Blueberry River and the Government of B.C. establishes areas where development can take place and others that are protected. It also imposes significant new disturbance fees in areas deemed ecologically or culturally important.
It is unclear, however, how much, if any, effect this will have in reducing the amount of gas that could come out of the ground, because much of it can be extracted using existing well sites. And there is capacity for more wells in the Montney, noted geologist Chapman in his 2021 article. Wells on each pad could quadruple or more at full development, he wrote.
Gas from the Montney is already shipped to Prince Rupert and Kitimat on the B.C. coast. There are plans to export much more, with both the Coastal GasLink pipeline and LNG Canada terminal in Kitimat under construction.
The CEO of Petronas Energy Canada, one of the main partners in LNG Canada, said in a statement he was grateful an agreement had been reached that would allow extraction to continue. “It is our expectation that the necessary work can now proceed to ensure that the gas Petronas Canada delivers to the LNG Canada project is responsibly produced right here in B.C., benefiting the entire province and country,” Izwan Ismail said in a news release at the time of the agreement.
CBC News reached out to Canadian Natural Resources Limited, one of the biggest energy companies active in the Montney, to ask about the environmental impacts of extraction, as well as the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. Neither responded to requests for an interview.
‘We are in the driver’s seat’
Natural gas is what heats many of the homes in northeastern B.C. through the frigid winters. But Blueberry River First Nations Chief Judy Desjarlais remembers when the only heat in her house came from a wood stove her grandfather made out of an old oil barrel.
“My grandfather hunted every day, if not every second day [to] bring home fresh meat because we didn’t have a fridge.” Her grandmother melted snow for water and tended a garden that provided all their produce. She remembers, in the late 1970s, when a well blowout produced so much poisonous gas the community had to move.
For the next decades she watched as the Blueberry River territory was logged, fenced off for agriculture and energy companies took millions out from under the ground. “Our people were overlooked, our standards were overlooked. There was no benefits to the nation,” she said. “The government and the oil and gas producers failed to come and look at our territory, our community. We are living in poor conditions. We’re still driving on gravel roads. We’re still … facing housing issues in terms of mold … water issues.”
Knowing oil and gas activity will continue and expand in their territory, Desjarlais wants her community to benefit.
“So now we’re at a place where we are in the driver’s seat upon all the activity within the area and we can still restore our cultural and traditional values … while working with industry, the government and find that balance so that we can move forward. You know right now it’s not business as usual. We’re no longer that checkbox.”
But if a gas company wants a permit and the project is not in line with Blueberry River’s restoration goals, do they now have the power to say no?
Desjarlais pauses to consider this.“[After] reviewing the process … where it’s at, which claim area it’s in … what’s the risk, the footprint that it’s going to leave … Yes, we do.”
By Tara Carman, Dexter McMillan and Mia Sheldon
Editor: Lisa Johnson | Photography: Maggie MacPherson