It has been called one of North America's wildest places. Just north of the US-Canada border, the wooded slopes of the Canadian Rockies channel unpolluted water into a valley that remains free of human development. Grizzly bears, cougars and wolverines prowl the banks of the Flathead river. Outside of a national park, there is probably no wilderness like it on the continent.
But outside of a national park could mean outside of legal protection. Somewhere in the workings of the British Columbia government, an application from global energy company BP is working its way around civil servants' desks. In it, the firm outlines a proposal that has horrified local environmentalists: the installation of up to 1,500 gas wells covering an area of 500 sq km (310 sq miles) amid the lush 1,580 sq km wilderness of the Flathead. Some time during the next six months, officials may give approval to the project.
"There have to be some places on the planet where you don't go for energy production," says Jack Stanford, a biologist at the nearby University of Montana. "This is one of them."
Stanford's fascination with the region has spanned 40 years of his scientific career. When he describes the valley, it's easy to see why. To the north lie the mountainous Banff and Jasper national parks. The 4,500 sq km Waterton Glacier International Peace Park straddles the border just south of the river. All these great wildernesses have been declared world heritage sites by Unesco.
The Flathead valley connects the protected areas, allowing hundreds of bears and thousands of moose to roam between the parks. Sixteen species of carnivore live in the region, a higher density than anywhere in North America. Without a corridor, animals in the parks would become more isolated, inbred and vulnerable to disease. "The grizzlies would gradually decline and disappear," warns Stanford.
Unfortunately for those animals, their route between parks covers mountains that hold valuable fossil fuel deposits. Around a kilometre below the Flathead river region lies the Crowsnest Coalfield. According to BP's initial estimates, the field holds enough natural gas for half a century of drilling. When operating at peak, it should produce over 14m cubic metres of fuel a day, more than enough to supply the 2 million people that live in Vancouver and surrounding parts of British Columbia.
Fossil fuel drilling is never a pretty process, but environmental groups are particularly wary of projects that aim to extract methane from coal seams. Large volumes of salt water flow up the well with the gas and have to be disposed of, for example. The liquid is so saline that it can pollute land and kill fish if allowed to enter rivers.
Coalbed methane drilling is also land intensive. Erin Sexton, a colleague of Stanford's who has studied similar projects in other parts of North America, says energy companies typically install 40 wells on every sq km of a coalbed methane project. Along with the wells come roads and pipelines. "They have taken natural landscapes and turned them into industrial sites," she says.
None of these concerns will be news to BP, which has stressed that detailed environmental studies are needed before any work begins. Hejdi Feick, a spokeswoman for the company, says the British Columbia government decision refers only to tenure, a legal status that would give BP the right to apply for drilling permits. If that's granted, the company will continue with ongoing environmental studies for at least three years before beginning commercial production. The firm also says water from the seam will be pumped back into underground reservoirs and that it plans to have only around three wells per sq km.
Some local environmentalists have praised BP for its willingness to engage with local concerns and its commitment to study the area. But when it comes to details of how the projects may be implemented, differences of opinion arise.
Sexton wants the company to commit to a five-year moratorium on drilling activities. That is the time she feels is needed to conduct a detailed survey of the region's waters, vegetation and wildlife. Only last year, a new species of fish was discovered in the area, she says.
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But Feick would not rule out exploratory drilling while the environmental studies were still under way. She adds that the company is "committed to doing this project right" and may still decide not to proceed.
But thousands of miles to the south of the Flathead, rancher Tweeti Blancett questions such assurances. Blancett used to run cattle over 200 sq km in Aztec, New Mexico. Her husband's grandfather leased land to the energy companies in the 1950s, but it was not until coalbed methane wells arrived in the 80s that problems started.
Blancett says saline water often spills from wells and tankers. If the spill runs into a gulley, it wipes out all vegetation in its path. She claims that spills of polluted water or drilling fluids sometimes take weeks to be cleared up and government oversight of the firms is too lightweight to make much difference. Around three years ago, she decided the land was too polluted and moved her cattle.
A BP spokesman disputed Blancett's claims, saying her description of the coalbed methane project was "not consistent with the facts as we know them".
In the Flathead, meanwhile, BP has to contend with a well-organised group representing a dozen organisations from both sides of the US-Canada border. The Flathead Coalition was first formed when coal mining began in neighbouring Elk Valley in the 70s, says Dave Haddon, the coalition's director. Its strength stems from its diverse membership, which includes local landowners, environmentalists and biologists.
Not everyone agrees on everything. Some landowners have no interest in designating new wilderness areas, for instance. But Haddon says the group reaches consensus by focusing on the broad objective of preventing inappropriate development in the region.
With that diversity of interests behind him, Haddon has more of an impact than niche groups with tighter focuses. This April, for example, he met with the managers of nine investment funds that own substantial amounts of BP stock. Haddon says BP has so far declined to share documents relating to its environmental studies and that the managers might pressure BP into being more transparent about its plans for the region. The coalition is also asking Unesco to declare the Flathead a world heritage site.
"The coalition gives us the chance to increase the volume and to represent ourselves as mainstream," says Casey Brennan of Wildsight, a local environmental organisation that is part of the coalition.
Asked if the coalition would allow any amount of coalbed methane drilling, Haddon admits that the issue is tricky. The coalition position is that development can take place, provided BP has adequate plans in place to protect the valley's flora and fauna. But the words Haddon uses to describe the Flathead - a "cornucopia for wildlife", a fragile corridor that could easily be "severed" - makes clear his concern about any threat to what makes the area unique.
Other coalition members are more blunt. Brennan says: "I don't think this can go ahead. This area is far too valuable. There is a saying in business: 'If you want to make omelettes you have to break eggs.' We don't want to be those eggs."
© 2008 The Guardian