Joe Oliver was on the West Coast again last week, getting to know British Columbia. Ottawa has recently figured out that getting energy projects moving across B.C. is a major undertaking, and the Natural Resources Minister is leading his government's political effort to secure what it can't enact, demand or buy: a social licence.
Mr. Oliver's latest visit took him to the heart of the province, Prince George, where he prevailed upon First Nations leaders to get in on the benefits of developing the West's natural resources. Not just liquefied natural gas, he stressed – when his government talks about energy projects in the West, it means Alberta oil too.
"The opportunity is not just LNG, it is all natural resources. Over the next 10 years, as much as $650-billion could be invested in natural resource development in Canada," he told the invitation-only summit with aboriginal leaders.
But lumping together oil and gas, as his government has, is not realistic in B.C. And that is a subtlety that Mr. Oliver, because of his now-monthly visits to B.C., is catching on to.
The B.C. government has been consumed with the pursuit of LNG. Premier Christy Clark has tempered her remarks, since the May election, about dirty oil from Alberta. Still, mindful of the significant opposition to oil pipelines in B.C., she would prefer to keep some healthy distance between the two energy products.
On Friday, Mr. Oliver was in Vancouver to sign a pact with his Japanese counterpart to open up trade and investment in oil and gas. Japan needs both, Canada has both. But he stressed that developing the infrastructure to get LNG to market is "a strategic imperative."
Speaking to aboriginal leaders earlier in the week, Mr. Oliver indicated he has absorbed another key lesson, that energy isn't going to move in B.C. so long as First Nations are opposed. "I have learned that addressing environmental protection and economic benefit agreements is critical – but that is not all. … I have learned that we cannot begin the journey until we have established relationships."
The Enbridge Northern Gateway battle, if nothing else, has focused Ottawa's attention on the fact that unsettled land claims in B.C. could present a serious impediment to opening up new energy corridors.
In an interview, Mr. Oliver acknowledged that First Nations can't be consulted as an afterthought. "Engaging early is really critical," he said. Is that why the Enbridge Northern Gateway oil pipeline proposal has hit a wall with First Nations? "I don't want to get into that specific project, except to say there are people who don't believe that occurred."
Mr. Oliver does believe the prospects for LNG development are brighter – that First Nations can be supportive of natural gas even while opposing the transportation of heavy oil.
"I understand there are people and communities who will make that distinction," he said. "Clearly, those who are proposing projects that would move diluted bitumen have a communications challenge."
Grand Chief Ed John of the First Nations Summit said Mr. Oliver would do well to abandon any effort to sell oil and gas in the same breath. "First Nations say 'no' on oil," he said in an interview.
The path to the coast for natural gas, and LNG, is not assured either, Mr. John warned. Aboriginal communities are being pressed to analyze the potential impact of pipelines, fracking or other resource developments in their traditional territories, and increasingly they don't want to be rushed into decisions.
In his own northern community of the Tl'azt'en Nation, a gas pipeline proponent wants sign-off on an impact study with just one month's notice, Mr. John said. "They say this is worth billions of dollars. We're saying, 'Yeah, okay, but you need to go through our territory.' I don't see any genuine engagement yet."
While Mr. Oliver expresses an urgency to take advantage of the energy opportunities now opening up, B.C. First Nations are starting to organize around LNG to ensure their seat at the table. "You can put all the money you want into LNG, but you need to deal with the pipelines and the gas fields," Mr. John said. "Without that, all the planning and money is for naught."