The federal review of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline has hit another setback this week after a coastal first nation community withdrew from the process, saying the Harper government has predetermined the outcome.
The hearings were temporarily derailed when the panel was greeted by protests in the remote native community of Bella Bella on Sunday. The panel ended up holding abridged hearings in Bella Bella.
On Thursday, the Nuxalk First Nation of Bella Coola cancelled its status as an intervener, vowing to find other ways to oppose the project.
"Our intention was to be part of the process, but just seeing how they treated our neighbouring community, it was disheartening," Nuxalk hereditary Chief Charlie Nelson said. It was last week's announcement from the federal government that the process will be fast-tracked, however, that persuaded the band's leadership to withdraw.
Mr. Nelson said it is clear the federal government intends to approve the project, adding that the new time limits only serve to further compromise the independence of the panel.
The proposed pipeline would cross northern B.C. to move Alberta's oil-sands crude to reach markets in Asia and California. Much of the land is still open to aboriginal land claims.
Sparked by environmental concerns about both the pipeline and the increase in tanker traffic off the coast, strong opposition to the project has come particularly from first nations communities in B.C. that are now threatening legal action if the project wins federal regulatory approval.
Although there are still 46 first nations with intervenor standing, the cancellation will provide further ammunition for legal action against the project, said Ed John, grand chief of the First Nations Summit.
"It lays the groundwork for a court challenge, when the government does not consult with first nations," he said.
Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver has said Ottawa will fulfill its constitutional duty to consult with first nations affected by the pipeline but, Mr. John said, the review does not meet that obligation. "The panel cannot discharge the government's responsibility," he said.
Mr. Oliver also said the project will be decided based on the national interest, a point that rankled Mr. John. "If that energy strategy built on the tar sands and the pipeline and that tanker traffic is in the national interest, surely to God the resolution of the land question in B.C. should be in the national interest as well," he said.
Mr. John met with Mr. Oliver in January and urged him to tour the pipeline route and meet with people who live in those northern communities.
"Rather than making the decision from their lofty perch in Ottawa," he said in an interview, "they ought to come out and look for themselves – they need to make an informed decision."
The mayor of Smithers, Taylor Bachrach, said he would love to have the opportunity to play host to the key federal ministers who will be making the final decision. "We'll take them out Steelhead fishing, maybe help them understand why people up in our neck of the woods are so concerned about the project," he said.
Mr. Bachrach is registered to make a submission to the hearing when it moves to Smithers later this month. He is speaking not as mayor, however, but as a resident. "I want to tell them that the natural resource industries are important to this part of the world but it's not oil country. There are some things we are not willing to sacrifice."
The joint panel of the National Energy Board and Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency is expected to wrap up hearings in the spring of 2013, but that timeline is now in doubt after Ottawa promised to streamline the major project review process. It will be retroactive but it is not yet clear how it will be applied to these hearings.