A group of First Nations is fighting the Petronas-led Pacific NorthWest LNG project, marking the first time that aboriginals have outright rejected a liquefied natural gas proposal in British Columbia.
Aboriginal leaders have voiced their support in principle for B.C.'s fledgling LNG industry in the past, as long as the projects meet environmental standards to protect the land and water, but Pacific NorthWest LNG is facing criticism for choosing a site that critics say will harm juvenile salmon.
The opposition by the group of First Nations underscores a significant shift in sentiment because LNG shipments have been viewed as posing much less risk to the environment, compared with deep-rooted worries about oil spills into the Pacific Ocean.
The First Nations leaders want the joint venture, led by Malaysia's state-owned Petronas, to withdraw plans to build on Lelu Island because of fears that construction of an LNG terminal will damage eelgrass beds in Flora Bank, where young salmon swim.
Petronas has already warned that it will suspend the project for 15 years unless tax and regulatory issues are resolved, so the focus on saving the fish adds yet another layer of complexity to a delicate situation.
First Nations leaders had previously maintained an open mind toward B.C. LNG, in contrast to their fears and anger about the proposed Northern Gateway oil sands bitumen pipeline.
But some aboriginal groups are emboldened by what they see as success in fending off Northern Gateway and delaying other energy projects. They are now attempting to to thwart Pacific NorthWest LNG – widely seen by industry analysts as the project that will make a final investment decision first, ahead of 17 other proposals to export LNG from the West Coast to Asia.
Leaders from the Wet'suwet'en, Gitanyow, Lake Babine and Gitxsan say Pacific NorthWest LNG's proposed site at Lelu Island in northwestern British Columbia is the wrong place to locate an LNG export terminal because of the harm to salmon habitat in the estuary of the Skeena River, near Lelu Island. They say a new plan for a suspension bridge poses environmental risks that have not been properly evaluated, and their views have been largely ignored because their land and title is farther away from Lelu Island than other First Nations.
"You couldn't pick a worse place to put a B.C. project such as this," John Ridsdale, hereditary chief of the Wet'suwet'en Nation's Tsayu clan, said in an interview Wednesday. "The plan for Lelu Island is ludicrous."
Other First Nations, however, remain open to Pacific NorthWest LNG's plans to build an $11-billion export terminal near Prince Rupert, creating a difficult situation for the project to navigate.
In filings to environmental regulators, Pacific NorthWest LNG argues that it has consulted with aboriginals who are located closest to Lelu Island, notably the Metlakatla, Kitsumkalum, Kitselas, Gitxaala, Gitga'at and Lax Kw'alaams. Those First Nations have major concerns, but they have been willing to work with the project's officials to reduce environmental risks, according to the filings.
Spencer Sproule, Pacific NorthWest LNG's senior adviser of corporate affairs, said the venture is being subjected to a rigorous environmental review. "Our facility represents a generational opportunity for area First Nations in regard to long-term careers, business opportunities and skills training," Mr. Sproule said in a statement. "For the past two years, we have been in active consultation with First Nations that were identified by the governments of Canada and British Columbia as having levels of claim to the lands that we are proposing to construct our facility."
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency raised concerns in May about the fate of wild salmon, which are important for First Nations' food.
The Wet'suwet'en, Gitanyow, Lake Babine and Gitxsan, who voiced their criticisms at a news conference in Vancouver, say no amount of mitigation measures will satisfy them. Glen Williams of the Gitanyow suggested Pacific NorthWest LNG explore other sites near Prince Rupert.
Last month, the Petronas-led group proposed building a suspension bridge that would extend southwest for 1.6 kilometres away from Lelu Island. The suspension bridge, which would connect with a 1.1-kilometre-long jetty, is designed to vastly minimize dredging and avoid damaging the sensitive eelgrass beds for salmon in Flora Bank.