The president of Pacific NorthWest LNG says the energy consortium is poised to start construction next year, undaunted by a native group's legal challenge of the project's proposed British Columbia site for exporting liquefied natural gas.
"We're shovel ready, and ready to move ahead as soon as we've got the final federal government approvals and final permits," Michael Culbert said in an interview during an international LNG conference in Vancouver.
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency is expected to rule in early 2016 on the proposal submitted by Pacific NorthWest LNG, a consortium led by Malaysia's state-owned Petronas.
Three weeks ago, 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.
Mr. Culbert said the uncertainty surrounding ownership of the proposed site for an $11.4-billion export terminal on Lelu Island won't be a showstopper. Lelu Island and Flora Bank have been labelled as federal Crown properties by the administrator, the Prince Rupert Port Authority.
"At the end of the day, we look at it and say, 'There's a question as to who the landlord might be.' When that answer is clear, we will then take our agreement that we have and pay the landlord appropriately," he said.
Some Lax Kw'alaams hereditary chiefs said recently they are willing to work with Pacific NorthWest LNG, but other members are opposed to the Lelu Island site because it is located next to a juvenile salmon habitat in Flora Bank, a sandy area visible at low tide. And some members of the Gitxsan First Nation are opposed to TransCanada Corp.'s plans to build the Prince Rupert Gas Transmission pipeline from northeastern B.C. to Lelu Island.
"The First Nations file is a complex file in British Columbia," Mr. Culbert said. "The challenge for a project of our nature, and the scope of it, is the vocal minority sometimes is a very small group of people, and in most cases the silent majority is indeed silent."
Pacific NorthWest LNG wants to build a suspension bridge and pier from Lelu Island to a planned dock for Asian-bound LNG tankers. "We haven't settled on the exact final design," he said. "The modelling that we're doing shows that the infrastructure has a very minimal impact on the habitat, let alone even Flora Bank. We think that working with the First Nations and making sure that they're aware that we're willing to commit dollars to the salmon habitat are extremely important."
There is a rift among the Lax Kw'alaams about whether Lelu Island is a suitable site for the export terminal.
Donnie Wesley, a Lax Kw'alaams clan leader of the Gitwilgyoots tribe who objects to Lelu Island as the proposed site, and his supporters set up a protest camp on Lelu Island in late August. He warns there will be a devastating impact on the eelgrass in Flora Bank that nurtures young salmon.
"We understand the issue is salmon and salmon habitat," Mr. Culbert said. "We can demonstrate from a scientific perspective that indeed the salmon habitat is safe. Would we have liked to have gone on a faster timeline? Absolutely." Still, he emphasized that the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency is right to put the proposal through a rigorous review.
"Is the project still willing to change in the context of adjustments. The answer is yes," Mr. Culbert added.
On Wednesday night, Mr. Wesley's son Joey joined more than 180 protesters at an anti-LNG rally in downtown Vancouver, stopping in front of the building that houses Pacific NorthWest LNG's head office. The demonstrators raised a range of concerns, from climate change to hydraulic fracturing to salmon habitat.
B.C. Deputy Premier Rich Coleman said new scientific studies by Pacific NorthWest LNG will show that juvenile salmon can co-exist with the marine infrastructure. "By the time the science hits, we'll actually be enhancing fish. And I think that it could actually turn out to be a good story," he said.