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Pacific Future Energy is studying transporting crude by rail to Prince Rupert, though a pipeline is possible if conditions change to allow Enbridge Inc. or TransCanada Corp. to build a line from Alberta to northwestern B.C.Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Engineering firm SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. is teaming up with a firm co-owned by a former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations for preliminary work on a proposed B.C. oil refinery.

A-in-Chut Business Group, jointly owned by Shawn Atleo, has formed a partnership with SNC-Lavalin to do pre-engineering studies for Pacific Future Energy.

Pacific Future Energy's goal is to process tar-like bitumen from Alberta at a plant to be built near Prince Rupert, B.C., and export refined petroleum products to Asia by tanker. Company officials say the risk to the environment would be much lower than exporting bitumen in tankers.

Stockwell Day, a former federal international trade minister, is Pacific Future Energy's senior adviser, while Robert Delamar serves as the company's chief executive officer.

Mike Bonshor is co-owner of A-in-Chut Business Group with Mr. Atleo, who joined Pacific Future Energy's management team in December in the role of senior adviser of partnerships.

"This refinery will be transformative and innovative in both the approach and the technology," Mr. Bonshor said in a statement on Friday. "First and foremost, we recognize and respect the role of First Nations and their rights and title in resource development."

A-in-Chut Business Group describes itself as "a First Nation business and investment group focused on supporting and empowering First Nations to create and build sustainable economic development based on rights and title."

Mr. Delamar said that having First Nations as full partners is crucial.

"We also believe that community support must be earned before – not after – finalizing our plans," he said. "For one of Canada's oldest engineering firms to agree with this approach and work with A-in-Chut Business Group to invest in this development process is a strong vote of confidence."

Industry analysts are skeptical about B.C. refining plans, citing heated competition among foreign plants and the shipping costs to get to consuming markets in Asia that already have refineries in place.

But SNC-Lavalin CEO Robert Card said his firm will be assisting in developing one of the most energy-efficient refineries yet built. "This project will help open up Asian markets for Canada's energy sector, while building key infrastructure on Canada's West Coast."

The project is aiming to limit carbon emissions at low levels as it strives to process bitumen into refined products, such as diesel, gasoline and jet fuel.

Pacific Future Energy officials say they are committed to consulting and accommodating First Nations. Ovide Mercredi, another former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, has served on the company's advisory board since December.

Pacific Future Energy hopes to launch operations in 2023.

Newspaper publisher David Black's rival Kitimat Clean oil refinery project has targeted an opening date in 2022.

A third proposal, Eagle Spirit Energy, wants to refine bitumen into finished products either in Alberta or northeast B.C. before piping the material to the West Coast for export. All three ventures still need to attract investors and commodity buyers.

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