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Lelu Island, site of an export terminal proposed by Pacific NorthWest LNG.Brent Jang/The Globe and Mail

A rift has emerged in the Lax Kw'alaams First Nation over Pacific NorthWest LNG's plan to export liquefied natural gas from Lelu Island on B.C.'s northern coast.

The disagreement among members of the Lax Kw'alaams focuses on whether Lelu Island should be rejected outright as the site of an $11.4-billion export terminal.

For more than five weeks on Lelu Island, there has been a protest camp spearheaded by Donnie Wesley, a Gitwilgyoots tribal leader who objects to the proposed terminal site because it is next to Flora Bank, an ecologically sensitive area that nurtures juvenile salmon.

But some prominent members of the Lax Kw'alaams are open to potentially having an export plant on Lelu Island, saying they want to examine the Petronas-led consortium's efforts to address concerns about the project's impact on fish habitat in Flora Bank, which is visible at low tide.

John Helin, a former Lax Kw'alaams chief councillor, said the key is whether Pacific NorthWest LNG is able to prevent environmental harm to Flora Bank in the Skeena River estuary. "I want to rely on good information about Lelu Island before deciding whether I agree or disagree," he said in an interview. "You have to keep an open mind and find out all the facts before making decisions."

Mr. Helin said he will be running for Lax Kw'alaams mayor in November against at least two other candidates, notably the incumbent Garry Reece. Mr. Helin is vice-president of Eagle Spirit Energy Holdings Ltd., which has secured the support of hereditary Lax Kw'alaams leaders for a pipeline that would carry upgraded oil from Alberta to Grassy Point, located near Lax Kw'alaams. His brother, Calvin, is Eagle Spirit's president.

Robert Sankey, hereditary house leader of the Eagle clan of the Gitwilgyoots tribe, said he believes it is possible for Pacific NorthWest LNG to devise a suspension bridge and pier that avoids hurting Flora Bank, but the designs presented so far are not sufficient. "We are not against LNG development. We just don't want Flora Bank to be disturbed," Mr. Sankey said from Prince Rupert.

Last week, the Allied Tribes of Lax Kw'alaams filed a court claim for title to Lelu Island and Flora Bank in the Port of Prince Rupert, arguing that LNG export plans interfere with aboriginal fishing rights. There are nine tribes, including the Gitwilgyoots.

Mr. Reece said in a recent interview that the elected Lax Kw'alaams Band Council has not decided for or against Lelu Island, but he favours holding a community referendum with secret ballots to determine the native group's formal position on Pacific NorthWest LNG. Mr. Reece headed meetings in May in which members in attendance stood up to overwhelmingly refuse to provide aboriginal consent by rejecting the consortium's $1-billion cash offer over 40 years. Some members, however, complained that the voting process was flawed.

There are 20 B.C. LNG proposals, although fierce global competition means only three or four stand a chance of launching, industry experts say. Amid delays with LNG projects in British Columbia, Veresen Inc.'s Jordan Cove LNG in Oregon is positioning itself to become the first major venture to export natural gas in liquid form from North America's West Coast.

Calgary-based Veresen hopes to open the Oregon terminal in 2019. A small-scale joint venture called Douglas Channel LNG, backed by Calgary-based AltaGas Ltd., is seeking to begin LNG exports in 2018 from a floating facility near Kitimat in northwest British Columbia.

The U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave environmental approval on Wednesday to Jordan Cove LNG.

There haven't been any final investment decisions made yet by LNG proponents in either British Columbia or Oregon.

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