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British Columbia First Nations granted role overseeing proposed Pacific NorthWest LNG facility

A boat carrying protesters and supplies lands on Lelu Island near Prince Rupert, B.C. in August. Environmentalists and a group of scientists have warned that the proposed LNG project will harm the environment near the island.

Ben Nelms/Bloomberg

The B.C. and federal governments say they have secured a deal to give First Nations a role in environmental monitoring of the proposed $11.4-billion Pacific NorthWest LNG facility and export terminal.

The pact, announced Tuesday with the Lax Kw'alaams Band and the Metlakatla First Nation, is designed to address indigenous opposition to the project on Lelu Island in northwestern British Columbia, by providing the two communities with an oversight role in the development and operation of the liquefied natural gas facility.

"This is historic in nature, typically it's not a role we share with First Nations," said John Rustad, B.C.'s Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation.

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The two indigenous communities, which hold the strongest aboriginal title claims to the territory where the facility is proposed, will each have a seat on an environmental-monitoring committee that will oversee compliance with the regulations set down in the project's environmental certificate.

The proposed LNG terminal received environmental approval from Ottawa last fall, but has not yet received a green light from the financial backers, led by Malaysia's state oil company Petronas.

The Petronas project was touted to become the first major Canadian exporter of liquefied natural gas, which would have been a political coup for Premier Christy Clark, who campaigned in the 2013 provincial election on the promise of a lucrative new LNG industry.

But a final investment decision has been delayed due to weak energy prices, and that verdict is now not expected until after the next provincial election this May.

While the backers waver on their investment, the Lax Kw'alaams remain divided over the project. In the spring of 2015, the community voted to reject the proponent's cash offer worth $1.1-billion over 40 years. A new agreement has not been announced, but Mr. Rustad said there has since been extensive consultation within the community about the project and potential benefits.

"There is no question, there will never be 100-per-cent support," Mr. Rustad said. "The question is whether or not the project can be done safely, looking after environmental concerns. What we have announced here is a key piece to make sure it can go ahead."

The elected leader of the Lax Kw'alaams, Mayor John Helin, did not return calls. In a statement, he said the agreement is an important step toward his community's consent to the project. "We have always maintained the view that the environment is most important to us and with this agreement in place, it will help protect the fish, waters and lands in our traditional territory."

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Mayor Helin, who was elected months after the community voted to reject the initial deal, said earlier that his community could support the project if provided with an oversight role.

Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, in a statement, said the agreement responds to that demand. "The idea to create this committee is based on input received from indigenous peoples throughout the environmental assessment process to ensure protection of the environment through ongoing project monitoring and oversight."

However, the project still faces several court challenges sponsored by environmental and indigenous critics both at the terminal site and along the natural gas pipeline route.

Environmentalists and a group of scientists have warned that the project will have a devastating impact on salmon habitat on Flora Bank, a sandbar located next to Lelu Island. The bank contains eelgrass beds that are crucial to the survival of juvenile salmon in the estuary of the Skeena River. As well, the project will produce a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions.

"This doesn't alleviate any of the very legitimate concerns around Skeena salmon and their habitat in the estuary," said Shannon McPhail, executive director of the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition.

The Petronas-led consortium is conducting a project review that could lead to an alternative docking facility that would avoid Flora Bank. However Ms. McPhail scoffed at the potential change, long after the project has won environmental approval from both the federal and provincial governments for the current design.

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"It's a last-ditch attempt by a desperate company that recognizes they are likely never going to build this project."

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