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British Columbia National Energy Board to examine jurisdiction of plans for Coastal GasLink pipeline project

Local residents of the area share a moment at the site of Monday's arrests at Marker 44. They were on their way with First Nations leaders and RCMP to make an announcement at the Unist'ot'en camp near Houston, B.C., Jan. 9, 2019.

Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

A $6.2-billion pipeline project, already disrupted by fierce opposition from hereditary chiefs in the B.C. Interior, will be undergoing scrutiny to determine whether a fresh regulatory review is required.

The National Energy Board is poised to examine an application from Mike Sawyer, an environmentalist from Smithers, B.C., who argues that TransCanada Corp.’s Coastal GasLink needs federal approval.

Coastal GasLink received provincial regulatory approval in 2014 to proceed with plans to construct a 670-kilometre pipeline from northeast B.C. to a West Coast terminal. The plant, for exporting liquefied natural gas to Asian markets, will be built by LNG Canada, the Royal Dutch Shell PLC-led consortium.

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All 20 elected Indigenous bands along the natural-gas pipeline route have signed project agreements with Coastal GasLink. But the Smithers-based Office of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposes the line’s construction, citing concerns about the environmental impact of the route across their traditional territory.

The NEB declined to add the office and 45 other parties to its list of intervenors, saying the narrow focus for now is on the issue of regulatory jurisdiction.

Mr. Sawyer filed his application last summer. The NEB wasn’t automatically obligated to hear his case, but decided last month to set a timeline for proceedings. The importance of the issue has been heightened after the RCMP arrested 14 protesters last Monday at a police checkpoint, leading to the Unist’ot’en blockade along a remote B.C. logging road.

Barriers were removed late Friday, allowing Coastal GasLink workers to cross the Morice River Bridge to get to a portion of the pipeline route located 1.1 kilometres away.

“I think that under the B.C. regulatory system, the project was not properly assessed. Coastal GasLink should be a federally regulated line,” Mr. Sawyer said in an interview. “The game’s not over.”

His financial donors include West Coast Environmental Law’s dispute-resolution fund.

Coastal GasLink must meet a Jan. 28 deadline for filing its documents, while intervenors have until Feb. 15 to submit their written arguments. Coastal GasLink would have until March 19 to file its reply, and then final oral arguments would be heard by the NEB.

Mr. Sawyer said he expects the final oral hearing will be in Calgary this spring, but the NEB said it has yet to make a decision on whether the venue will be in Calgary or Vancouver.

The list of intervenors includes Ecojustice Canada, the country’s largest environmental-law charity. Also intervening will be the B.C. and federal governments, as well as the five international co-owners of LNG Canada: Shell, Malaysia’s state-owned Petronas, PetroChina, Japan’s Mitsubishi Corp. and South Korea’s Kogas. LNG Canada announced in October that it will forge ahead with building an $18-billion export terminal in Kitimat on the West Coast, part of $40-billion in spending that includes Coastal GasLink.

“TransCanada will continue to respond as appropriate through the National Energy Board and believes that the facts pertaining to this project will support a strong case of continued provincial regulation of the pipeline,” TransCanada spokesman Terry Cunha said in a statement on Sunday.

The NEB didn’t grant standing to 46 parties, turning down a wide range of municipalities and elected bands that support the pipeline, as well as the Office of the Wet’suwet’en and various environmental groups that oppose the route.

David Johnston, who helped found a grassroots group in Kitimat named The North Matters, said not enough attention has been placed on the five elected bands within the Wet’suwet’en Nation that back the pipeline, and that Mr. Sawyer has ignored the economic benefits.

“He’s trying to throw any kind of wrench into this that he can,” Mr. Johnston said. “I don’t think he has a leg to stand on.”

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Mr. Johnston made the comments after The North Matters held its inaugural meeting on Saturday night for the Bulkley Valley chapter of the pro-LNG group, attracting more than 50 people from Smithers and the nearby Houston area.

In late 2017, pro-LNG residents in Kitimat and Terrace launched The North Matters. The group’s organizers include a gym equipment supplier, an electrician, a board member at the Kitimat General Hospital Foundation and a past president of the Rotary Club of Kitimat.

Mr. Johnston said he expects the Bulkley Valley chapter will also attract a similar array of local residents.

The NEB said it will not be reviewing whether the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office (BCEAO) conducted an adequate review since the federal regulator will be focused on the issue of whether Coastal GasLink should be subject to B.C. or federal jurisdiction, and it is not an appeal process of the BCEAO’s approval.

“If, following this hearing, the board determines that it ought to take jurisdiction of the project, it would require a separate application and hold a separate hearing to determine whether to approve the project,” the NEB said.

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