A coalition of First Nations leaders is ratcheting up pressure on Canada's oil sands industry, vowing to collectively oppose and actively resist any increased transport of crude through their traditional territories.
At press conferences in Montreal and Vancouver, representatives of some 50 indigenous communities in Canada on Thursday unveiled a "treaty" that commits them to band together to stop all new pipelines, rail projects and increased tanker traffic that would facilitate oil-sands expansion.
"Our Nations hereby join together under the present treaty to officially prohibit and to agree to collectively challenge and resist the use of our respective territories and coasts in connection with the expansion of the production of the Alberta Tar Sands, including for the transport of such expanded production, whether by pipeline, rail or tanker," the agreement says.
Oil companies and the governments of Alberta and Saskatchewan argue the industry needs additional pipeline capacity to reach Canada's west and east coasts in order to access growing markets and gain world prices for Canadian crude. The federal Liberal government has opposed the Northern Gateway project in British Columbia, and will decide before Christmas whether to approve Kinder Morgan's proposed expansion of the TransMountain pipeline to Vancouver.
Many of the signatories to the agreement have been voicing their opposition to specific projects, including the TransMountain expansion and TransCanada Corp.'s planned Energy East line that would deliver 1.1-million barrels per day of crude from Alberta to eastern refineries and an export terminal in Saint John, N.B.
Now, they are vowing to stand together to oppose – with direct action if necessary – any new pipeline or rail project or marine terminal that expands oil-sands export capacity. The First Nations leaders say they represent sovereign nations and are entering into a treaty based on that sovereignty.
"The government will not have a simple issue isolated in British Columbia or any area of the country - it's going to be across the country," Grand Chief Serge Simon, of the Mohawk Council of Kahnesatake, said in an interview. "If you attack one of my allies, if the industry wants to bully an ally of mine, they better realize they're not just dealing with them."
While they point to local risks of pipeline or rail spills, they are highlighting their concerns that expanding oil-sands production is incompatible with the goal of transitioning to a lower-carbon world in order to combat climate change. They also commit to work together to advance renewable energy projects and to urge government to increase its support for clean-energy technology.
Representatives of some U.S. tribes have also signed the accord, as a they engage in a high-profile effort at the Standing Rock reservation in South Dakota to block construction of the Bakken Access pipeline. That project would carry crude from the prolific Bakken field to Illinois. Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. has announced a deal to acquire a significant stake in that project from its proponent, Energy Transfer Partners.
"Indigenous people have been standing up together everywhere in the face of new destructive fossil fuel projects, with no better example than at Standing Rock in North Dakota," said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs. "We know that infrastructure that expands the tar sands is both incompatible with reducing Canada's emissions and completely irresponsible."
However, not every First Nation leader is against new pipeline projects.
"Without the Canadian economy being in a healthy state as a result of natural resource production, we will be a basket case," said Fort McKay Chief Jim Boucher, who leads a northern Alberta community encircled by oil sands mines.
"We certainly need to get pipelines built. We certainly need the people to be on board and not be abrasive towards the concept of having pipelines," Mr. Boucher said in an interview earlier this month.
Fort McKay has raised concerns about water pollution, battled for better environmental monitoring and fought keep new development away from pristine parts of its traditional territory. But the First Nation's Group of Companies also provides services to oil sands industry, including construction, road maintenance and industrial parks, and enjoys somewhere around $400 million in annual revenues from its business ventures, according to the long-serving chief.
There are "good pipelines and there are bad pipelines," Mr. Boucher said, and regulators need to come down hard on operators not living up to safety standards.