Sacred Headwaters of British Columbia, photo credit~ canoekayakmag
My friend and former art instructor John wrote this letter to Shell Oil Company in response to its plan to frack the sacred headwaters area of British Columbia. The landscape is a subalpine basin in northern British Columbia that is the source of the Skeena River, Nass River and Stikine River.
A Photographic Documentary [slide show]
photo credit~ Paul Colangelo
To Shell Oil Company
Last spring, I had the great pleasure of hearing a talk by Dr. Wade Davis, award-winning author, noted anthropologist and 'ethnobotanist', and National Geographic explorer-in-residence. Dr. Davis spoke to an auditorium packed to capacity about his experiences dealing with indigenous peoples the world over, and shared his very evident reverence, as a scientist and a humanist, for these peoples and their connection to the land.
Dr. Davis' talk peripherally made mention of Shell Oil's activities in the Sacred Headwaters area of BC. I was surprised to learn that the BC government would allow a process as unsustainable and potentially disruptive as fracking in such a vital watershed area.
As you no doubt are aware, the growing debate surrounding fracking has become popularized in North America by documentary films (such as Josh Fox's Gaslands, 2010, as well as by popular protest against fracking in New York state and, recently, landmark legislation against fracking in the state of Vermont. While I am sure you are very aware of this controversy and its growing prominence in the public eye, I might refer to an excellent summary by Bill McKibben in the New York Review of books,
Why Not Frack?
I wonder if you expect that Shell's activities will not attract similar controversy, or that Shell will be able to ride out such critical attention, the way it did in the 1980's, when its de facto support of South Africa's Apartheid government drew attention to its other unsavoury activities, including the wholesale despoiling of wildlife habitats in the state of Colorado entailed in the manufacture of hazardous industrial pesticides, and the subsequent exporting of said toxic and dangerous chemicals to third world markets.
As a lifelong BC resident and an educator, I am concerned about the inaction Shell has shown towards resolving the conflict in the Sacred Headwaters. In fielding questions from students in the days following Dr. Davis' discussion, it was difficult not to segue into a discussion of Shell's misconduct as a corporate citizen. When my students ask me to explain Shell's motives for its irresponsible behavior, I am at a loss.
For instance, last year, Lorraine Mitchelmore (Shell Canada) said Shell was interested in a solution for the region. Earlier this year, Marvin Odum (Shell BC) acknowledged that it is clear Shell is not wanted in the Sacred Headwaters. Last spring, Shell CEO Peter Voser said the company had no plans to leave. Only a few months remain until the moratorium ends and Shell has taken no steps to withdraw its operations. It is challenging not to interpret these conflicting statements and actions with cynicism, circumspection and doubt.
As I'm sure you already know, fracking is (contrary to the public relations campaigns that Shell and others have spent millions on), a method of resource extraction whose repercussions have not been responsibly accounted for by the energy companies that have invested in these operations. The growing attention the the hazards of fracking has no doubt compelled Shell to tread lightly in pursuing its goals in the region. Shell's past behavior in the arenas of responsible care for the environment, fair treatment of indigenous peoples in the regions where it extracts (and here I would cite their past conduct in Nigeria), and its cavalier regard for the long-term economic sustainability of its practices, should not inspire our confidence.
Effects of Royal Dutch Shell in Nigeria, photo credit~ HuffPost
Simply put: the Sacred Headwaters is no place to drill for gas, nor to inject the undisclosed mixture of chemicals used in fracking (with their potential consequences of polluted groundwater and increased seismic vulnerability.) This area is nothing less than the shared source of three of North America's wildest and most important salmon-bearing rivers - the Skeena, Nass, and Stikine in northwest British Columbia. This vast wilderness is important summer range for the endangered Osborn caribou, and provides critical habitat for grizzlies, moose, and wolves. North America's largest population of stone sheep use this area for breeding.
The notion that the BC government would have afforded Shell the rights to conduct such an operation in such an environmentally and politically sensitive area is unfortunate for both BC residents and Shell itself, but the BC government can act responsibly by imposing a moratorium on fracking in the area.
Here are a few more talking points for your consideration: the Sacred Headwaters have been named the Most Endangered Rivers in British Columbia for the past three years. Shell's proposed coalbed methane development was named as the biggest threat. Every downstream community and First Nation has passed resolutions, saying “No” to Shell’s plans in this region. Over 60,000 people from around the world have signed postcards supporting these communities, urging Shell to leave.
Our government has the power to do something historic and shape the future of the Sacred Headwaters. Impose a moratorium on drilling for gas in the Sacred Headwaters. The practice is irresponsible, the location is inappropriate, and the timing (politically speaking) is, I think you will agree, potentially disastrous.
I'm sure you must be very conscious of the degree to which the environment has moved in recent years from a politically marginal topic to a mainstream issue, inseparable from the ongoing search for sustainable energy futures that must needs dictate the future of Shell Oil. Perhaps you are less aware of the degree to which political unrest related to the economic crises is the European Union and the United States has undertaken a critique of government compliance in the misconduct of our corporate citizens. When corporations like Shell Oil demonstrate their willingness to engage in unsustainable, short-term ventures which exploit land, indigenous peoples, and shared commons such as wildlife and drinking water, they depend upon people ignoring such connections. I am writing to inform you that, from my perspective, these connections are being acknowledged: in classrooms, in newspaper editorials, via social media, and around Canada's dinner tables. The world is watching you.
Further information on fracking
New York Review of Books
Why Not Frack?
Propublica, the best investigative site on Fracking
Gas Drilling's Environmental Threat
Fracking - Natural Gas Affects Water Quality
CBC News (Canada)
Fracking causes minor earthquakes, B.C. regulator says
23 minutes long