British Columbia First Nations are wielding increasing clout in their dealings with proponents of pipelines to support LNG and oil sands bitumen exports.
Within one week, provincial government and natural gas industry officials were expelled from a First Nations LNG summit in Fort Nelson, at the heart of northeastern British Columbia’s shale gas deposits; a key aboriginal community has threatened to block discussions on “any and all pipeline development” in its territory; and dozens of First Nations are developing a strategy they hope will net hundreds of millions of dollars.
At the Fort Nelson summit, Chief Sharleen Gale expelled the government and industry representatives after learning the British Columbia government had changed environmental assessment procedures to exempt sweet gas from an automatic review.
She said the province had “acted in bad faith” at a time when it was supposedly trying to rebuild its relationship with First Nations.
Environment Minister Mary Polak quickly reversed the government’s position, promising consultation with the First Nations on environmental matters, but Gale did not say whether that would soften her community’s stance, noting only that she had been swamped with support from other native leaders.
She said the only hope of support will be a direct meeting with Premier Christy Clark, whose office said the premier would be happy to meet with Gale.
Bill Streeper, mayor of the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality, which incorporates Fort Nelson, said the expulsion of officials was a “knee-jerk” reaction in a community that is “100 percent dependent on LNG and the gas industry for its existence.”
“If LNG fails this town (Fort Nelson) will fail,” he said, suggesting the region’s forest industry is unlikely to recover for at least five years.
Frustration with hurdlesStreeper said he had heard from gas industry officials that companies are increasingly frustrated by the hurdles they encounter in British Columbia.
“There is a lot of gas in Alberta that could go into the LNG projects,” replacing British Columbia gas as a source of feedstock, he warned.
On the other side of British Columbia, the Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs, whose lands occupy proposed rights of way for several pipelines, said they will block those projects unless British Columbia withdraws treaty deals with two adjoining aboriginal communities.
The Gitxsan chief negotiator Gwaans (who is identified by just one name) said the government has been given until June 21 to reverse its treaty offers and include her community in negotiations.
She compared the Gitxsan dispute with the ejection of officials at Fort Nelson, saying the two issues highlight the breakdown of communications.
Gwaans said the government is “running roughshod over our rights. And you can see that all across the North with respect to the energy corridor.”
Kitselas Chief Joe Bevan — whose community and the Kitsumkalum have signed the treaty agreements — said too much time has been invested to abandon the process and suggested the Gitxsan should focus its unhappiness on the government rather than its aboriginal neighbors.
Communities looking at fundsMeanwhile, First Nations from the British Columbia gas fields to the sites of possible terminals on the northern coast say there is the potential for their communities to collect as much as C$600 million from each pipeline, as well as a share of the C$100 billion prosperity fund the province hopes to build over 30 years from LNG revenues.
But Coastal First Nations executive director Art Sterritt said there will be no progress until environmental concerns are addressed.
“That’s our first benchmark,” he said. “We are not opposed to industry, but we don’t like it when industry doesn’t do things as well as they possibly can.”
Sterritt said it is crucial that industry and government take steps to lower greenhouse gas and other emissions from their projects and resolve concerns over the impact of hydraulic fracturing and water consumption.
David Luggi, a negotiator for the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council in north-central British Columbia, said there would be no agreements with companies until the Clark government makes acceptable revenue-sharing offers.
Two early agreements were signed in mid-April that could provide C$15 million for First Nations near Prince Rupert, but others are waiting for the Canadian government to respond to recommendations made by special envoy Douglas Eyford, who was appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper last year.
Eyford was critical of the government’s failure to engage in constructive dialogue with First Nations and called for the creating of a “tripartite energy working group” drawn from government, industry and First Nations to advance energy projects.