After leading a charmed life of community tolerance since 17 Pacific Coast terminal projects began lining up five years ago, the race to export Canadian liquefied natural gas (LNG) is arousing a frequent opponent of industry in British Columbia (BC): Aboriginal resistance.
The first tangible development kindled by the lineup of export schemes on paper — a pipeline construction application by TransCanada Corp.’s Alberta and BC gas gathering web, Nova Gas Transmission Ltd. — awakened native wariness of development.
Seven tribal groups, known as First Nations in Canada, initially stepped forward to question TransCanada-Nova’s C$1.7 billion (US$1.5 billion) North Montney Pipeline, a conduit for future northeastern BC shale gas production.
The group farthest from the proposed right-of-way, the Dene Tha’ of northwestern Alberta, withdrew from the case. Six BC First Nations — Blueberry, Fort Nelson, McLeod Lake, Prophet River, Saulteau and West Moberly — still pose challenges.
Probing questions and demands for amplified studies go beyond the planned right-of-way and focus on upstream implications of emerging new BC pipelines, and especially on effects of future drilling and production facilities to fill the intended delivery network.
In documents filed with the National Energy Board (NEB), Prophet River First Nation reports already “experiencing considerable adverse effects from a variety of industrial activities.” Native lifestyle, especially living on wild game and vegetation, “will likely be adversely affected by all 305 kilometers [190 miles] of the North Montney Project.”
The McLeod Lake band warns, “We have significant concerns regarding our ability to use the land according to our customs and traditions due to the significant environmental impact of the project on wildlife and wildlife habitat.”
Native challenges to nascent Pacific coast LNG exports to date focus on likely effects of deep horizontal drilling, hydraulic well fracturing and production facilities construction on northwest Canadian caribou herds as a mainstay of aboriginal livelihood.
Biological census surveys since the 1970s have already documented slow but notable drops in the caribou population of as much as four-fifths in northern BC and Alberta, and up to 90% in the adjacent Northwest Territories.
The losses mostly predate shale gas exploration and development. Federal, provincial and territorial government agencies finger overhunting as at least one of the culprits in the caribou decline.
Northern authorities have begun trying to crack down against zealous hunting of the old herds with modern firearms and snow machines replacing bygone spears and dogsleds. The most conservation-minded First Nations are imposing or studying voluntary moratoriums on shooting caribou. But restraint remains far from prevailing.
Current prosecutions for hunting without licenses are being fought in the courts on aboriginal rights grounds, with native defendants insisting they were granted perpetual wildlife harvesting by 19th century treaties, modern claims settlements and 1980s Canadian constitutional reforms.
Environmental non-governmental organizations encourage aboriginal communities to blame industry of all kinds for erosion of wildlife habitat and populations. Fracking is projected only to add to damage conventional drilling and oil sands development.
Fort Nelson First Nation, with claimed traditional territory straddling BC’s thickest shale gas deposits, calculates that its forests, bush and muskeg swamps will eventually be invaded by hives of industry as LNG exports develop over the next 20 years.
In projections filed with the NEB, Fort Nelson foresees up to 4,000 fracking wells, 333 production facility sites, 1,665 kilometers (1,040 miles) of roads, 3,300 kilometers (2,060 miles) of pipelines, and 1,277 square kilometers (510 square miles) of disturbed land in its future if the LNG export sector fulfills industry and BC government hopes.
Provincial political leaders have set government targets of ensuring two or three of the proposed export terminals are built and sending tanker cargos to Asia within a decade, followed by development in stages of a continuously growing industry.
But while terminals are under provincial jurisdiction, the NEB is responsible for pipelines in BC North Montney is the most advanced entry in a lineup of gas delivery projects currently working through the regulatory process.
Divisions among aboriginal communities further complicate the BC regulatory scene. On the Pacific Coast the Haisla Nation, who are not caribou hunters, have done terminal site leasing deals with Kitimat project sponsors and recently unveiled their own proposal for six docks to host floating LNG processing vessels.
Before the federal agency, aboriginal Fort Nelson warns that “the domestic LNG export sector ends, but does not begin, on the BC Coast, and impacts on upstream First Nations must be meaningfully taken into consideration while planning an LNG future.”
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