The battle over Northern Gateway could spill into B.C.'s emerging liquefied natural gas sector if First Nations withdraw or temper their support for LNG projects to press the provincial government to block the Enbridge pipelines.
And while such a strategy has not been formally developed – and might not be fully endorsed even if it does take shape – any wavering toward a "yes" from the B.C. government on Northern Gateway could spell trouble for other major projects, including 13 LNG proposals now in varying stages of development.
"If [the province] wavers, then I think there could be a potential domino effect on any other major project – whether those are LNG, mining or pipelines," Terry Teegee, Tribal Chair with the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, said on Wednesday.
Along with 30 other First Nations groups, the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council on Tuesday said it would fight Northern Gateway in court after Ottawa approved the project, subject to 209 conditions.
B.C. had previously said it is opposed to Northern Gateway because the $7.9-billion project does not meet five conditions the province set for heavy oil projects in 2012. Provincial Environment Minister Mary Polak reiterated that position Tuesday, saying four of five conditions – including a requirement to address aboriginal and treaty rights – remain unmet.
While that provincial stance would appear likely to scuttle the project, there is uncertainty whether B.C.'s position could change.
"Are they going to hold to their word?" Mr. Teegee said. "If that's not the case, that could sour the relationship between us [First Nations] and the province."
There has been some talk among First Nations groups about linking LNG support to the Northern Gateway debate, said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.
"That consideration has been expressed – however, it hasn't been widely embraced as a negotiating position at this point," Mr. Phillip said.
The main venue for opposition to Northern Gateway is likely to be the courts, where at least five Northern Gateway-related actions are underway, Mr. Phillip added.
B.C. Premier Christy Clark has made LNG a centrepiece of her economic strategy and wants to see three LNG plants operating by 2020. Drawn by abundant natural gas and B.C.'s proximity to Asian markets, dozens of companies have come up with LNG proposals, including some backed by local First Nations such as the Haisla.
For B.C., more jobs and economic benefits are associated with its emerging LNG sector than with Northern Gateway, said Werner Antweiler, a professor with the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia.
"There would be a very strong interest on the side of the provincial government to accommodate the northern communities, and in particular the aboriginal communities that are opposed to Northern Gateway," Prof. Antweiler said. "There is some potential that communities opposed to the pipeline could leverage their support for LNG to convince the provincial government to tread carefully in moving forward on Northern Gateway."
Such a pattern is not likely to emerge right away but could come into play if other avenues of opposition don't work, he added.
The LNG sector also has support from First Nations groups that might not want to jeopardize agreements and investment to date.
"There's a big, big difference between the way LNG is being developed and the way Enbridge approached things," said Karen Wristen, executive director of Living Oceans. "The LNG producers went to the First Nations first and they offered them meaningful participation in the projects. Not all of [First Nations] took that up but some of them did – so some of those projects will be in a good position to go ahead."
As opponents discussed strategies to sink the pipeline project, supporters cited its potential benefits, including access to fast-growing Asian markets for Canadian oil and tens of thousands of jobs that would be created if Northern Gateway were built.