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Haisla First Nation Chief Councillor Ellis Ross, centre, during the opening day of hearings for the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project in Kitimaat Village, B.C., on Jan. 10, 2012.

DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

The Haisla First Nation has pulled out of an organization that has ardently fought the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline and called for greener practices in the export of natural gas.

The Haisla said they have withdrawn from Coastal First Nations, amid a debate among aboriginal groups about the environmental impact of West Coast industrial development that has now blown out into the open. The move comes as the Haisla shift their position on oil exports from their traditional territory, which some see as evidence that opposition to Gateway is beginning to wane.

In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, Haisla Chief Councillor Ellis Ross pointed to "public statements by CFN earlier this year on the Northern Gateway Pipeline and last month with regard to power for proposed LNG projects in Haisla territory" that "directly conflict with Haisla positions, may mislead those looking to do business in our territory, and disregard our autonomy as a Nation."

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Part of the dispute is grounded in the techniques used to compress and liquefy natural gas for export – and what greenhouse-gas emissions result. The difference is technical, but Coastal First Nations has backed using electric drives, which can be powered by hydro, rather than mechanical drives situated inside the export terminals that are powered by burning gas.

"The CO2 output on [mechanical drives] at a minimum is double the CO2 output of electric drives outside the fence," Coastal First Nations executive director Art Sterritt said in an interview Wednesday.

The Haisla have a substantial interest in the development of LNG in their region and have aligned themselves with several projects. Mr. Sterritt accused them of picking dollars over the environment.

"They ended up totally conflicted on this and they all decided: We're going to do this the dirtiest way possible and get all the money we can," he said.

The Haisla, however, say Mr. Sterritt, whose group has backing from environmental groups, is unfairly comparing the emissions from gas-fired power with hydro power – when there is no guarantee hydro power will materialize.

The Haisla, who have applied months of scrutiny to the question, say a better comparison is between gas-fired electricity and gas-powered mechanical compression – and on that front, they say, there is no emissions difference. In other words, they say, electric drive is no better.

On Wednesday evening, Mr. Ross expressed shock at Mr. Sterritt's remarks. "That's an insult to the Haisla people," he said, adding: "I can't believe that statement was made." He pointed to past dealings with local industrial players, where the Haisla have often chosen environmental over financial gain. Plus, he said, it's impossible to supply LNG export terminals with local renewable energy, as some have called for. "You're talking [power from] 20, 30 rivers, plus these huge wind farms," he said. Even then, it won't be enough: "what these companies are looking for is firm power, and these green energy projects really can't provide [it]," he said.

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For the Haisla, the move away from Coastal First Nations also comes as Mr. Ross strikes a less hostile tone toward the $6-billion Gateway pipeline, which proposes to move Alberta oil to the coast for export. Gateway would build a terminal to feed oil supertankers near Kitimat, B.C., in Haisla traditional territory. For that reason, the Haisla arguably hold the highest profile among first nations with regard to the project. Any change in their position could be important to a pipeline that has become a national priority.

Mr. Ross, for example, has met twice in the past two months with Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver. In an interview earlier this week, Mr. Ross was asked if the outreach by Mr. Oliver could prompt him to reconsider opposition to Gateway.

"Can we be persuaded? I don't know. I really don't know," he said. "You're really looking in a crystal ball now if you want that question answered."

He suggested that the Haisla are seeking assurance on project specifics.

"You've really got to show me that you've really covered off all the bases in terms of protecting the environment. Because all I can visualize is the Gulf of Mexico, Prince William Sound, Kalamazoo," he said, referring to the potential for spills from the pipeline and the tankers it would fill. He faulted the federal panel reviewing the project for not extracting enough "exact details" on how Gateway would manage safety concerns.

"What we have to know from a first nations side is, first, that we have accurate information, and second, that if we do get those promises and commitments [on safety measures], is the Crown and the proponent going to live up to them?" he said. He added: "We can't really put our faith in promises. We can't do that. It has to be detailed out in exactly what's going to happen."

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One person close to the Gateway project said the comments from Mr. Ross suggest a change in tone, and may signal that first nations opposition is showing signs of change. "The pendulum continues to shift," the person said.

Coastal First Nations, in contrast, has maintained a far stronger front against Gateway.

"There's never been a project in B.C. that's ever had this much opposition," Mr. Sterritt said in an interview earlier this week. He added: "I guess Joe Oliver can find friends where he likes. But the reality is those people who are opposed to Northern Gateway are still opposed to Northern Gateway."

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