As oil continues to gush from a BP wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico, critics say the company has quietly broken ground on a controversial project in B.C.'s Rocky Mountains.

Opponents of the Mist Mountain project say they were surprised to find that BP Canada, an arm of the BP group of companies, began construction earlier this month on an exploratory well for its coalbed methane project near Fernie, B.C.

The company was granted permission to conduct the experimental drilling in the pristine area in southeast B.C. just a few days after the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill.

And the disaster unfolding in the gulf since then has renewed concerns about the BP subsidiary's plans in the Rockies.

"This is just a reaffirmation of what we've always known and what everyone has known about BP is that they've had the worst environmental record of all oil companies in the world, even before the Gulf disaster," said Ryland Nelson, of the group Wildsight, which opposes the project.

But Hejdi Feick, the director of communications for BP Canada, said British Columbians can be reassured that the company is a good corporate citizen.

"We are absolutely committed to doing this right," she said Tuesday. "We have been very open and accessible over the last three years."

That is little comfort for Nelson, who said BP had promised to consult with the public every step of the way yet he only learned construction was underway when he went to the site Monday.

Nelson said the contractor on site told him they hope to bring in drilling equipment by the end of the month and start drilling this summer.

"Here they are, they've been working for nearly two weeks and nobody knew anything about it," he said.

The provincial government awarded tenure to BP Canada for the Mist Mountain project last December, over the objections of conservationists and First Nations on both sides of the border, as well as the Fernie town council.

Those critics say there is not enough environmental oversight for the project, which they believe will impact water and wildlife in the Rocky Mountain ecosystem.

The coalbed methane extraction includes reinjecting polluted water back into the ground, a process conservationists worry will contaminate ground water.

Feick said the company has been forthcoming with all information, including that it planned to start test drilling this summer.

"This is certainly not news to the folks there," she said.

"We've already gone as far as inviting some of the key groups to come and tour the site when we are drilling so they can have a sense of what that entails and what it means, what it looks like, that sort of thing."

Critics including Ryland say because BP's application was for a single well, the company avoided a thorough B.C. Environmental Assessment review, but Feick said the company has done three years of environmental studies and all the reports are available on the company website.

Graham Currie, a spokesman for the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission, said the commission did an extensive review of the project and concluded that direct impacts to wildlife habitat, environment and the forest land base would be minimal.

Currie said the review is a rigorous environmental assessment, but he couldn't say how it compared to the B.C. Environmental Review process.

He said there was no thought of reviewing BP's application, given the actions of its parent company surrounding the Gulf of Mexico disaster.

"No. We have made an extensive review here, we have granted a well authorization," he said. "We are satisfied with our process."

Ryland said the project threatens one of the most important wildlife corridors in North America. The well will be drilled in the area between Banff National Park and Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, which stretches between Alberta and Montana, a corridor for grizzlies, wolverines and other mountain-dwelling wildlife.

"This special place needs special consideration when considering major developments like this," he said.