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Aboriginal Group Takes Aim at Mackenzie Project Again

A new legal arrow has been fired at the limping Mackenzie Gas Project. An Alberta aboriginal community launched a lawsuit calling for a halt to the environmental review of the C$7 billion (US$5.6 billion) arctic production and pipeline plan.

In the third native legal appeal against the MGP since last fall, Dene Tha' First Nation filed a claim in the Federal Court of Canada alleging "ongoing failure" to address concerns of its 2,500 northern Alberta citizens. A prized moose pasture and woodland caribou habitat, known as the Bistcho Lake Peat Bog Plateau, will be jeopardized unless the courts intervene to toughen up the environmental review, the Dene Tha' said.

In addition to problems negotiating land access and community benefits agreements that prompted the MGP to suspend all field work April 28, the new claim raises a Canadian tangle of jurisdictional issues. The Dene Tha' insist that federal authorities led by the National Energy Board should immediately take over regulatory review of the entire MGP, including the last 60 miles of the proposed Mackenzie Valley Pipeline in Alberta.

The Dene Tha said their interests are falling through a crack opened up by an artificial split between the pipeline's southern-most Alberta leg and the 760 miles of the proposed pipeline in the Northwest Territories.

While the MGP consortium of Imperial Oil, ExxonMobil Canada, Shell Canada, ConocoPhillips Canada and the Aboriginal Pipeline Group is responsible for the northern 93% of the proposed gas delivery system, TransCanada PipeLines is sponsoring the final 7% in Alberta. TransCanada intends to apply for permission to build its share in the MGP to the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board -- "a much more industry-friendly regulator than the NEB," said the Dene Tha'.

The Dene Tha, based in the remote northwestern Alberta hamlet of Assumption, claim a vast traditional hunting territory that includes swaths of northeastern British Columbia and the southern Northwest Territories. The region is also a generations-old happy hunting ground for the Canadian oil and gas industry. Variously known as Zama and Rainbow Lake, the area harbors prolific geological formations and was the target of 2,500 wells last year.

"For 50 years we have lived with the negative impacts of petroleum development," Dene Tha' Councilor Cary Chonkolay said when the lawsuit was announced. "It's not pretty and it has created hardship for Dene Tha' families." That is, elements of the native community that are not included in the oil and gas hunting and still rely on trapping feel harmed. Economic arms of the Dene Tha' community have joint-venture partnerships in five drilling rigs with Calgary-based Western Lakota Energy Services Inc., which actively recruits and trains aboriginal employees.

The attorney for the Dene Tha', Robert Janes of the Victoria firm of Cook Roberts Lawyers, vowed "we will seek a hearing quite quickly" before the federal court in Calgary. As defendants, the claim names every federal department concerned as well as the NEB, plus the MGP consortium.

The new lawsuit comes on top of two filed by the Deh Cho aboriginal community in the southern Northwest Territories, also against the environmental review of the Mackenzie project. While different in detail, the Dene Tha' and Deh Cho cases are both rooted in Canadian constitutional and legal doctrine that aboriginal communities affected by industrial projects must be consulted on them. None of the defendants in the new case immediately issued statements, with officials saying it will take the lawyers time to study and understand the claim.

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