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An artistic rendering of Pacific NorthWest LNG proposed liquefied natural gas export terminal on Lelu Island, near Prince Rupert in northwestern British Columbia.

A group of Lax Kw'alaams hereditary chiefs has welcomed Pacific NorthWest LNG's studies of a proposal to build a terminal on Lelu Island for exporting liquefied natural gas, pitting the leaders against a protest camp on British Columbia's north coast.

The Nine Tribes of Lax Kw'alaams consider the camp set up six weeks ago an unauthorized occupation of Lelu Island, according to a statement issued by Alex Campbell, a spokesman for the Nine Tribes and a hereditary chief in the Gispaxlo'ots tribe.

Pacific NorthWest, an international consortium led by Malaysia's state-owned Petronas, wants to build an $11.4-billion export terminal on Lelu Island, which is next to the ecologically sensitive Flora Bank, a sandy area that nurtures juvenile salmon in the Skeena River estuary near Prince Rupert.

Donnie Wesley, a clan leader of the Gitwilgyoots tribe who objects to Lelu Island as the terminal site, started the camp with more than a dozen supporters. He considers Lelu Island and Flora Bank off-limits for development. But other Lax Kw'alaams leaders, including chiefs of other Gitwilgyoots clans, are open to listening to the consortium's argument for allowing construction on Lelu Island.

The aboriginal disagreement highlights a growing internal rift among Lax Kw'alaams members. The Gispaxlo'ots and Gitwilgyoots are two of the Nine Tribes. The protesters who oppose test drilling do not speak on behalf of Lax Kw'alaams members, said the statement issued on Monday by the Nine Tribes. "These people and their actions have no authority to speak or act, no authority to unilaterally decide to use and occupy any lands and no authority to use the identity of the Nine Tribes," it said. The hereditary chiefs added that they have offered Pacific NorthWest conditional access to Lelu Island and Flora Bank to do studies.

In an interview, Mr. Campbell said Lelu Island should be scrutinized as a potential export site as long as Pacific NorthWest can protect Flora Bank and the eelgrass there that is important for juvenile salmon habitat.

"I don't see any harm in allowing test drilling. I don't see harm being done to Lelu Island," he said.

The Nine Tribes have not decided whether to support building on Lelu Island. "As things progress, we should talk with the company and see how we can make things better," Mr. Campbell said.

Joey Wesley, a spokesman for the Gitwilgyoots, said he fully supports his father's occupation of Lelu Island: "We're still saying no to development on Lelu Island and Flora Bank. We're committed to staying on Lelu Island and exercising our aboriginal rights."

The Petronas-led consortium has proposed constructing a 1.6-kilometre suspension bridge to carry a pipeline beginning on Lelu Island and extending over the northwest flank of Flora Bank, which is visible at low tide. The bridge would connect with a 1.1-kilometre pier that would start on the edge of Flora Bank and stretch to a marine terminal for ocean-going LNG tankers.

At meetings in May organized by the elected Lax Kw'alaams Band Council, members stood up to overwhelmingly reject an offer from Pacific NorthWest for $1-billion cash over 40 years.

Two Tsimshian groups, the Metlakatla and the Kitselas, signed deals with Pacific NorthWest in December that would bring them economic benefits. The Lax Kw'alaams, Kitsumkalum and Gitxaala are the other three Tsimshian groups the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office consulted last year. They have not yet announced their decisions on the project.

British Columbia has 20 LNG proposals, although fierce global competition means only a few stand a chance of launching, industry experts say.