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Crystal Smith, Chief Councillor of the Haisla Nation, poses for a photo in Kitamaat Village, B.C., on Feb. 23, 2020.

Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

A public-relations battle is brewing over liquefied natural gas as a new study from the Conference Board of Canada touts huge economic benefits for elected Indigenous groups in British Columbia.

The report, commissioned and funded by the Canadian LNG Alliance, seeks to counter a series of critiques from environmental groups that slammed LNG and advocated instead for renewable energy in a low-carbon future.

Environmental campaigns deriding LNG have intensified in 2020, contrasting sharply with the industry’s portrayal of LNG as a transition fuel toward helping the planet achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

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Titled A Tide of Opportunity, the new report argues that LNG exports will help raise the standard of living for Indigenous people in British Columbia. The study was released on Monday by the Conference Board, an Ottawa-based non-profit think tank.

“LNG projects are generating sustainable economic growth for Indigenous people,” according to the study written by Kiefer Van Mulligen, an economist at the Conference Board. “Expansion of the LNG sector can add to that growth and contribute to the long-term process of reconciliation.”

The First Nations LNG Alliance and the First Nations Major Projects Coalition contributed to the research. Both of those Indigenous organizations support LNG Canada, a project led by Royal Dutch Shell PLC. LNG Canada is constructing an $18-billion LNG export terminal on the traditional territory of the Haisla Nation in Kitimat, B.C.

The goal is to start shipping natural gas in liquid form to Asia in 2025.

Crystal Smith, the Haisla’s elected chief councillor, describes her Indigenous group’s relationship with LNG Canada as positive and transformative, including training and employment of Haisla members.

“This new report confirms what the Haisla Nation already knows, that LNG is a big driver of opportunity for Indigenous communities,” Ms. Smith said in a statement that accompanied the Conference Board’s report. The Haisla’s main reserve, Kitamaat Village, is a 20-kilometre drive south of Kitimat, across Douglas Channel from the LNG Canada site.

Susannah Pierce, LNG Canada’s director of corporate affairs, said the Shell-led project in Kitimat has awarded more than $2-billion in contracts so far to Indigenous and local community businesses.

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“Early in our project planning we recognized the role LNG Canada must play in advancing economic reconciliation, and reconciliation as a whole,” Ms. Pierce said in a statement.

The Coastal GasLink pipeline will feed natural gas to the Kitimat terminal. Calgary-based TC Energy Corp. has set aside a 10-per-cent equity stake in its partly owned Coastal GasLink project for sale to 20 elected First Nation councils along the pipeline route.

Coastal GasLink has reached benefit agreements with all of those 20 councils, including five elected councils within the Wet’suwet’en Nation.

But a group of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, who maintain they have jurisdiction and authority over their unceded traditional territory, opposes the $6.6-billion pipeline project that will stretch 670 km from northeast B.C. to Kitimat. About 190 km of the route cross the Wet’suwet’en’s territory.

Despite the signing of agreements between companies and elected Indigenous band councils, the Conference Board said lingering opposition to LNG has complicated roots. “Pipelines pass through many Indigenous territories. Planning requires complex discussions about territorial rights, benefits and impacts,” according to the report.

The report said Coastal GasLink has awarded $870-million in contracts and employment funding to Indigenous and local companies across northern British Columbia. Another example of partnerships between companies and Indigenous groups is a joint venture between Seaspan ULC and the Haisla that secured a $500-million contract to provide tug services for LNG Canada’s shipping.

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“Indigenous peoples are using financial benefits to pursue social goals. This includes preserving language, promoting cultural heritage and protecting the environment,” the report said.

Critics of fossil fuels, however, are lumping LNG in with coal and oil as one of three climate evils.

Geoscientist David Hughes, in a study released in July by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, warned about methane leaks from the production of natural gas through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

In September, environmental group said LNG isn’t necessarily displacing coal at power plants in Asia, but hampering the growth of renewable energy.

In October, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) criticized the Conference Board’s July report, titled A Rising Tide, which estimated an average of 96,550 direct and indirect jobs annually in Canada if B.C. LNG projects reach their full potential over the next 44 years. “For British Columbians, LNG is not going to deliver in the way that the Conference Board’s breezy narrative suggests,” IEEFA said.

But in its report on Monday, the Conference Board said Indigenous groups believe that LNG must be part of the strategy to fight climate change.

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The report noted that the elected Indigenous leaders of the Haisla, Lax Kw’alaams, Metlakatla and Nisga’a have formed the First Nations Climate Initiative (FNCI) as a B.C.-based think tank.

“The FNCI promotes the role of Indigenous peoples in climate change mitigation and poverty alleviation. The group promotes LNG development as a solution to both problems,” the Conference Board said.

So far, only one new LNG export terminal is under construction in Canada: the LNG Canada project in Kitimat. Prospects in the future include Woodfibre LNG’s project near Squamish, located 65 km north of Vancouver.

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