Opponents of the proposed Pacific NorthWest LNG export terminal in northern B.C. vowed to seek a judicial review of Ottawa's decision to approve construction, underscoring the complex legal landscape in British Columbia of unresolved land claims, territory overlaps and the parallel systems of elected band councils and hereditary leadership.
"We are not going anywhere off Lelu Island, that's a given," said Don Wesley, a hereditary chief who has led an occupation of the island where Malaysian energy giant Petronas intends to build its liquefied natural gas facility. While the elected council of the Lax Kw'alaams have expressed interest in the $1.2-billion benefit-sharing offer the Petronas-led venture has put on the table, some hereditary chiefs are asserting that the band council has no jurisdiction off reserve land to made decisions in the nation's traditional territories.
Mr. Wesley was in Ottawa seeking a meeting with federal ministers on the project on Tuesday, unaware that Environment Minister Catherine McKenna was landing in Richmond to outline the 190 conditions that Pacific NorthWest LNG must meet before building an export terminal on B.C.'s northern coast.
Mr. Wesley, also known as the hereditary chief Yahaan, said he expects to file for a judicial review of the federal decision next week. "If they don't want to sit down with us, then there will be litigation."
But Joseph Bevan, the elected chief councillor of the Kitselas First Nation, welcomed the federal decision, saying it allows his Tsimshian community to benefit from the development.
"It gives us certainty that there is going to be a project," he said Wednesday. He said the proponents of the project have done a good job of engaging with First Nations. "It was done well and it was inclusive."
However Chief Bevan agreed that the project has strained relations between neighbouring communities. "You'll always have tension when you talk about development that has a magnitude of affecting a lot of people. That's not just First Nations."
B.C. Premier Christy Clark said Wednesday her government has worked with First Nations communities to ensure they benefit from this project from the gas fields to the coast, and there is more work to be done. But she said the government won't wait for unanimity.
"I recognize it's a project where not everyone in British Columbia is going to agree 100 per cent, but leadership means you've got to make a decision sometimes, so we decided to support this enthusiastically."
Karen Ogen-Toews, CEO of the First Nations LNG Alliance, said the federal decision may help overcome some opposition in indigenous communities because there are so many hurdles that still need to be cleared.
"The highlight of this decision is the 190 conditions that need to be met," she said. "That may address the concerns that First Nations have for environmental impacts … It may be favourable for all of us."
Although British Columbia's indigenous people have demonstrated a near-united front opposing the construction of new crude oil pipelines across the province, there is no cohesive voice on the development of a liquefied natural gas industry that promises to deliver billions of dollars in revenue-sharing for First Nations that have offered their support.
Federal approval of the Pacific NorthWest LNG proposal this week has the potential to deepen the divide over resource development among First Nations. Four of the five Tsimshian communities that are directly affected by the development of the plant near Prince Rupert have signed term sheets that could lead to impact and benefit agreements with Pacific NorthWest, while the fifth community, the Lax Kw'alaams, has been torn over the $1.2-billion offer the joint venture has put on the table.
Along the pipeline route that would deliver natural gas to the plant at Lelu Island at the mouth of the Skeena River, 16 First Nations have signed benefit-sharing agreements. But communities along the river say they have not been adequately consulted about the potential impact to their traditional fishing resources.
Environmentalists have forged a strong coalition with aboriginal leaders to oppose heavy oil development including pipelines and the resulting tanker traffic off of B.C.'s coast. As there are almost no treaties settled in British Columbia, court challenges to projects such as the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline have been led by aboriginal groups – they have the strongest legal foundation to object to resource development that may affect their rights. On LNG, the environmental movement cannot count on the same alliances.
Shannon McPhail is the executive director of the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition, which has led grassroots opposition to the Petronas LNG proposal. The coalition is working with indigenous leaders who are opposed to LNG, but seeks to avoid conflict with those communities that support of the project.
"We have come to understand that the values by which people support or oppose pipelines are the same: We all want a future for our families," she said. Ms. McPhail added that government and industries have sold some First Nations communities on LNG as a means to lift their people out of poverty, but she said that is ignoring alternative energy projects that could achieve the same outcome without the environmental risks.
"The opportunities are endless. If we had a fraction of the support that the government has given to LNG, we would have an entirely different energy future in the north and First Nations would not be held hostage to LNG."