Addressing a landmark Supreme Court decision on First Nations land rights for the first time, Enbridge Inc. chief executive Al Monaco said the ruling could have an impact on its push to build the Northern Gateway pipeline if future claims come forward but it won't change the pipeline company's approach to aboriginal communities.
A Supreme Court ruling in late June affirmed aboriginal title to a specific tract of land for the Tsilhqot'in Nation of British Columbia. However, many have interpreted the decision as ratcheting up uncertainty for Canada's oil and gas industry. The ruling makes it easier for First Nations to establish title over lands that were regularly used for hunting, fishing and other activities prior to contact with Europeans if they didn't surrender them through treaties. Governments and companies must try to obtain consent from title holders for use of the land.
Most British Columbia First Nations do not have treaties. Mr. Monaco, whose company has proposed the $7.9-billion Northern Gateway pipeline to transport Western Canadian crude through northern B.C. to the West Coast, and onward to global markets, acknowledged the significance of the ruling is difficult to assess.
"Consent in this context is driven by the fact that title would need to be proven," Mr. Monaco told reporters following a speech at the TD Securities Calgary Energy Conference Wednesday.
"In our particular corridor, there are no title claims – at least at this point. I suppose there could be in the future, and we'll just have to deal with that at that time."
Mr. Monaco said Enbridge has already taken rights and title into consideration in all of its dealings with aboriginal communities for the past decade.
"We've been in discussions with First Nation communities whose territory is within 80 kilometres of either side of the planned route" of Northern Gateway, he said during his speech. "Specifically, we've got [equity] agreements with 26 First Nations and Métis which will make them true partners in the project."
Enbridge has never revealed which First Nations have signed equity agreements in connection to Northern Gateway, at the request of the communities themselves, according to the company. Ottawa has given the proposed project the green light, with more than 200 conditions. However, the future of the project is mired in environmental concerns – especially the risk of a bitumen tanker spill – and will likely face new legal challenges before the end of the month.
Most of Mr. Monaco's speech was focused on the push to build new pipeline capacity and get Western Canadian oil to markets on the coast, where producers can obtain higher world prices for their crude instead of the discounted prices it usually commands.
As production from the oil sands increases, Mr. Monaco said he sees a "substantial risk between growing supply and availability of pipeline capacity.
"It really enforces the fact that we need all market access capability. Of course, the stop-gap has been rail."