Opposition to Alberta oilsands pipeline plans is spreading and escalating into a constitutional, aboriginal rights challenge against liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports from the Pacific Coast of British Columbia (BC).

Three northern native communities — the Gitxaala, Gitga’at and Fort Nelson First Nation — are discarding a gentleman’s agreement to tolerate industry that enabled KM LNG and BC LNG to obtain export licenses last winter (see NGI, Feb. 6; Oct. 17, 2011). Participants in the first two projects include Haisla First Nation, the native community in their designated plant, terminal and tanker port sites at Kitimat.

After refraining from filing objections or withdrawing them in the KM LNG and BC LNG cases, the protesting trio is mounting an attack against a pro-development procedure that the federal Conservative government enacted in a regulatory reform bill in June (see NGI, July 23). The legislation authorized the National Energy Board (NEB) to grant gas export licenses swiftly without requiring environmental assessments or holding public hearings, regardless of the scale or duration of the energy trade plans. An arena for a fresh aboriginal rights and environmental dispute to has been provided by an export license application from a third and largest North America overseas sales scheme, LNG Canada Development Inc., by Royal Dutch Shell plc and its partners (see NGI, Aug. 6).

The protest case says plans to fill the proposed tanker terminals by tapping shale formations in northern BC have become too big to let the chain of LNG export development advance any farther without a public review or challenge. The program unveiled to date requires building up a new branch of Canadian supplies which is about two-thirds the size of today’s established sources. In combination, the projects call for dedicating a total of 45 Tcf of gas to tanker exports to Asia — a volume equal to 65% of the current combined reserves of 69 Tcf in BC and Alberta.

The lineup of projects jeopardizes traditional aboriginal territory with horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technology imported from the United States, jumbo pipeline construction and hazardous tanker traffic, say the native communities’ chiefs and lawyers in documents filed with the NEB.

“It will bring the risk of catastrophic damage to the land and marine environments as well as air quality issues,” writes Gitga’at First Nation Chief Councilor Arnold Clifton. “These projects will be highly disruptive,” agrees Gitxaala Nation Chief Councilor Elmer Moody. “There is a high probability that, if these projects proceed, Gitxaala will experience cultural loss equivalent to cultural genocide, effectively ending a community culture which has survived for thousands of years.”

As natives of scenic BC islands, fjords and rain forests, the Gitga’at and Gitxaala are icons of Canadian aboriginal heritage, and a formidable legal and political force. The groups’ trademarks — from potlatches or salmon feasts in communal long houses to cedar totem poles displaying clan symbols of ravens, eagles, wolves and killer whales — are fixtures of libraries, parks and museums across the country. The coastal native cultural legacy had a starring role in the internationally broadcast opening ceremonies for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.

Far inland — near BC’s top boundary with the Yukon and Northwest Territories and beside the gas-rich Horn River Shale deposit that the LNG export schemes rely on developing — the Fort Nelson group represents another highly regarded side of the national native heritage: hunters, trappers and voyagers who were partners in Canada’s founding industry: the fur trade.

“Exploration and development of natural gas resources impact the exercise of treaty rights in countless ways,” writes Lana Lowe, lands and resources director of Fort Nelson First Nation. “Among the direct effects are linear disturbances such as roads, pipelines and seismic lines, land clearing for drilling platforms and workspace, water withdrawals from lakes, rivers and reservoirs, discharge of effluent such as hydraulic fracturing solution, gas flaring, vehicle traffic, noise and vibration, and spills and other industrial accidents,” Lowe tells the NEB.

Gas export licenses are critical ingredients of Canadian overseas marketing campaigns that will determine the fate of supply development plans, the native leaders and their lawyers said. The new, untried NEB power to approve mammoth gas exports without environmental reviews or oral hearings wrongly ignores the higher authority of aboriginal rights enshrined in the Canadian constitution, say the BC native communities. The protest actions rely on a 1982 national reform act that pledged respect for native interests in general. Court rulings have translated the promise into requirements to consult and accommodate aboriginal communities when development affects their treaty rights, land reserves or formally claimed territories.

The LNG Canada project team — Shell Canada, Mitsubishi Corp., Korea Gas Corp. and PetroChina — is urging the NEB to use its new power to grant long export licenses in a businesslike fashion without any public fuss. Shale drilling, pipeline construction, port installations and tanker traffic to produce and move the merchandise will eventually require permits and environmental assessments by other federal and provincial agencies, the consortium says.

The BC government continues to give enthusiastic support to LNG exports and shale gas development. In a letter filed with the NEB last month, the BC Ministry of Energy, Mines and Natural Gas formally threw the province’s weight behind the LNG Canada scheme — and made it plain that additional export terminal projects will be welcome, on top of the three that have stepped forward to date.

“The province’s conventional natural gas potential is 52 Tcf, but its shale gas potential is more than 1,200 Tcf,” the ministry tells the NEB. “A third of BC’s shale gas could support exports from LNG Canada and four other large liquefied natural gas facilities for 90 years.”

BC government economic projections show that the province stands to make mammoth gains by ensuring that its resources are developed on an international scale. “With LNG Canada and four other large liquefied natural gas plants operational, cumulative gross domestic product impacts of C$1.5 trillion are estimated by the year 2046, an average of C$55 billion in GDP impacts per operational year. This will require 100,000 person years of employment in BC for the construction phase of five large LNG plants, stabilizing at 2,700 full-time jobs during operations.”

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