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The document signed by Premier Christy Clark and Pacific NorthWest LNG president Michael Culbert in Vancouver on May 20, 2015.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Five First Nations, including two groups that support Pacific NorthWest LNG, have joined forces to assess the environmental impact of B.C. liquefied natural gas exports proposed for the Prince Rupert region.

Metlakatla, Kitselas, Gitxaala, Kitsumkalum and Gitga'at are members of the newly formed Tsimshian Environmental Stewardship Authority (TESA).

An open letter announcing the group's creation was signed by five aboriginal chiefs: Harold Leighton of Metlakatla, Joe Bevan of Kitselas, Clarence Innis of Gitxaala, Don Roberts of Kitsumkalum and Arnold Clifton of Gitga'at.

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Working together, or bax laansk in the Sm'algyax language of the Tsimshian people, will benefit future generations of aboriginals, Chief Leighton said in an interview Thursday. "It really gives us a stronger voice," he said.

Pacific NorthWest LNG president Michael Culbert welcomed the group's formation. "We applaud the initiative taken by Tsimshian leadership to act and speak with a collective voice when it comes to environmental stewardship," Mr. Culbert said in a statement.

In December, Metlakatla and Kitselas signed impact-benefit agreements with Pacific NorthWest LNG, a joint venture led by Malaysia's state-owned Petronas.

The Kitsumkalum and Gitxaala have not yet announced their decisions on whether to support Pacific NorthWest LNG.

Chief Innis said TESA is generally supportive of the concept of B.C. LNG exports, with the initial focus on Pacific NorthWest LNG because that venture is the most advanced proposal in the Prince Rupert region. He noted that the new native authority has the mandate to examine other projects and the cumulative environmental impact in the long term.

Gitga'at First Nation said this week that it is seeking a judicial review of the B.C. government's consultation process, which excluded the Gitga'at from being fully recognized in a provincial environmental assessment of the Petronas-led project.

Absent from the new group is Lax Kw'alaams First Nation, a Tsimshian tribe that has lingering worries about the potential impact of Pacific NorthWest LNG's project on juvenile salmon habitat in Flora Bank. Flora Bank, a sandy area that is visible at low tide, is next to the proposed $11.4-billion LNG terminal on Lelu Island.

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Chief Innis said Gitxaala Nation is edging closer to an impact-benefit agreement with the Petronas-led consortium. But he wants to make sure environmental concerns are addressed first, notably greater scrutiny of a planned suspension bridge over Flora Bank that would have a pipeline transporting LNG from Lelu Island to a deep-water berth for tankers.

In voting in May, members of Lax Kw'alaams declined to provide aboriginal consent by overwhelmingly rejecting Pacific NorthWest LNG's $1-billion cash offer over 40 years.

"We look forward to engaging Lax Kw'alaams, the Province of British Columbia, the Government of Canada and project proponents to work together to find a path forward that protects the environmental legacy with which we are entrusted," the five chiefs said in the letter directed at their members and also government and industry.

Other projects in the Prince Rupert area include ones proposed by Beijing-based CNOOC Ltd., through its Canadian unit Nexen Energy ULC, at Digby Island; Irving, Tex.-based Exxon Mobil Corp. and its Canadian affiliate, Imperial Oil Ltd., at Tuck Inlet; and BG Group PLC at Ridley Island.

"Our Nations agree that resource development can only take place when the environment and our communities are protected," the five chiefs said in their letter.

David Keane, president of BC LNG Alliance, said in a statement that companies recognize that the environment is a key issue for aboriginals. "Our members are committed to working with First Nations to build a positive, long-lasting and mutually beneficial relationship," said Mr. Keane, whose group represents seven major LNG projects.

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Last month, Pacific NorthWest LNG granted conditional approval for its project, subject to ratification of an LNG bill by the B.C. Legislature in July and receiving clearance from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.

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