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The federal environmental review of the Northern Gateway pipeline proposal could be out as early as next week, setting the clock ticking for a decision from Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet by next June at the latest.
Even if the environmental concerns about the heavy oil pipeline can be satisfied – a very large if, given the findings of a federal oil-spill response study released Tuesday in Vancouver – there is another major hurdle to clear.
On Thursday, Mr. Harper's special envoy for West Coast energy infrastructure is expected to release his report on what needs to happen to bring aboriginal communities on board as partners in resource development.
In response to the strong opposition from First Nations to Northern Gateway, Doug Eyford was appointed this past March to map out a strategy that would engage those communities on resource development and environmental protection in Western Canada.
Mr. Eyford was due to deliver his final report to Mr. Harper last weekend. If Mr. Eyford's past statements are any guide, there is much work to be done in the months ahead.
Last spring, shortly after the Vancouver lawyer and treaty negotiator was appointed, Mr. Eyford spoke in an interview about the need for deep and meaningful consultations with First Nations to lay the groundwork for major energy projects. Those communities along the proposed Enbridge pipeline route will say that did not happen.
Speaking at an energy conference in September, Mr. Eyford said the large number of proposed resource projects in the West "are profoundly challenging for aboriginal leaders, and confrontation and resistance are the likely outcomes if their communities are not effectively engaged during the planning and development stages."
Ottawa is keen for a quick resolution to provide new export pathways for Western Canada's energy resources, particularly Alberta oil. The B.C. government, although primarily concerned with promoting liquefied natural gas, also has a stake in ensuring that opposition to energy projects doesn't erupt into another Elsipogtog. The anti-fracking protests in New Brunswick have not spread to B.C., but there is frustration simmering over the lack of First Nations engagement in oil and gas development in the West.
In 2012, Premier Christy Clark laid out her "five conditions" for supporting the movement of heavy oil across British Columbia. One of them is ensuring that legal requirements regarding aboriginal and treaty rights are addressed and that First Nations are provided with the opportunities to benefit from these projects.
Because much of the province remains subject to unresolved land claims, the federal government plays a key role in these projects, with a duty to consult with First Nations in the path of those developments.
In the next few months, Ottawa would like to see British Columbians warm to the prospect of hosting oil pipeline corridors. The Eyford report this week should provide a critical part of that dialogue.
Justine Hunter reports on the B.C. legislature in Victoria.