A major energy project seeking aboriginal support for a plan to export B.C. liquefied natural gas has run into strong resistance from a First Nations group worried about the plight of salmon.
The Lax Kw'alaams band is weighing the promises of LNG prosperity against the perils of losing a traditional way of life that relies heavily on salmon and other marine food and resources.
In early voting, members of the Lax Kw'alaams have overwhelmingly declined to give their consent for exporting natural gas in liquid form, despite being offered $1-billion in cash from the Pacific NorthWest LNG joint venture led by Malaysia's state-owned Petronas.
Emotions ran high during the first two meetings this week as Lax Kw'alaams members voiced their fears about the project's threat to salmon habitat in the estuary of the Skeena River at the proposed export terminal site on Lelu Island near Prince Rupert, B.C. "I will never, ever give up the Skeena River for money," one participant said to applause during Monday night's meeting in a videotaped excerpt. "There is far too much at stake."
In meetings that began this week, native leaders are asking members to indicate whether they support or reject the offer made last week. On Tuesday night, more than 180 eligible voters in attendance at a school gymnasium in Lax Kw'alaams unanimously stood up to show their opposition, three sources close to the aboriginal group said Wednesday.
The lure of $1-billion to be spread over 40 years is being overshadowed by what the 3,600-member native group views as excessive environmental risks in northwestern British Columbia. The Lax Kw'alaams are worried that the Petronas-led project will harm juvenile salmon in eelgrass beds in the Flora Bank area of the estuary, next to Lelu Island.
An estimated 800 people live in the community of Lax Kw'alaams, while roughly 1,800 are based in Prince Rupert and another 1,000 in Vancouver and elsewhere.
Besides the cash offer from Pacific NorthWest LNG, the B.C. government is willing to transfer 2,200 hectares of Crown land, valued at $108-million, spread over the Prince Rupert harbour area and other property near Lax Kw'alaams. TransCanada Corp.'s Prince Rupert Gas Transmission pipeline plan is also under scrutiny by the First Nations group.
On Thursday night in Prince Rupert, members of the Lax Kw'alaams will listen to presentations from Pacific NorthWest LNG, marking the fourth consecutive evening of meetings held by native leaders gathering input.
Lax Kw'alaams Mayor Garry Reece and 12 elected councillors will make the final decision on behalf of members. Voting wraps up next Tuesday in Vancouver, the final stop after the meetings in Lax Kw'alaams and Prince Rupert.
Pacific NorthWest LNG estimates that $36-billion will need to be spent in order to make its planned exports a reality in 2019. The huge budget includes $11.4-billion for the LNG export terminal on Lelu Island and $5-billion for the Prince Rupert Gas Transmission proposal.
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency started its review of the LNG project in April, 2013, and the much-delayed assessment is slated to stretch into September.
A draft report will be issued first, with public comments invited by the agency, said Matthew Keen, an energy regulatory lawyer at Bull Housser in Vancouver. That draft report could be released by this summer, outlining conditions for the LNG project to meet before potential federal approval is granted, industry observers say.
The aboriginal-backed Skeena Fisheries Commission sees threats to salmon habitat in the environmentally sensitive estuary.
But Spencer Sproule, Pacific NorthWest LNG's senior adviser of corporate affairs, said the project will respect the environment. "Pacific NorthWest LNG has enshrined our commitment to the health and sustainability of fish and fish habitat in the offer – this builds upon the numerous commitments and design changes that the project has made to address the concerns of the community, particularly in relation to the marine environment," he said.
Petronas and its Asian partners filed an environmental impact statement in February, 2014. The federal regulator expressed concerns to the joint venture in May last year and again in February of 2015.
Pacific NorthWest LNG has been hoping for a breakthrough with the Lax Kw'alaams, after the energy venture signed term sheets for impact benefit agreements in December with the Metlakatla and Kitselas First Nations.