The Canadian government has served notice that it intends to move the Mackenzie Gas Project along as briskly as the complex northern regulatory apparatus will permit.

The signal went out in reply to a political move to slow down the process by critical environmentalists. An appeal by the Sierra Club of Canada, Canadian Nature Federation and Canadian Arctic Resources Committee for a 2004 repetition of the 1970s Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry fell flat, both in Ottawa and on the Mackenzie Delta.

Federal Environment Minister David Anderson announced the project will be assessed in industry-standard fashion rather than by a special royal commission. He will appoint a review panel of federal specialists and aboriginal government officials under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. Anderson promised a “rigorous, coordinated environmental assessment process.”

The difference was not subtle from the environmentalists’ point of view. Rather than getting a chance to air wide-ranging views before a sympathetic sounding board, they will have to become interveners presenting detailed evidence to a formal legal process if they want a say on the Canadian arctic gas project.

Anderson’s decision assigned the case to a procedure that did not exist in the 1970s, when the inquiry escalated into a marathon of collecting opinions, fears and feelings across Canada. It ended in a development moratorium on grounds that communities were neither equipped nor ready to respond to an Arctic gas proposal.

Delta aboriginal authorities endorsed the environment minister’s decision. The chairman of the Inuvialuit Game Council, Frank Pokiak, said he was satisfied native interests will be taken into account. The chief of an environmental screening committee for the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, Bill Klassen, said the community has full confidence in the relatively new process.

The review panel will include two Inuvialuit representatives, another decision that will not necessarily delight environmentalists from southern Canada.

A 1970s alliance of convenience between southern conservationists and northern aboriginal groups broke down long ago. The environmentalists are blamed for killing arctic livelihoods with successful global protests against the old fur trade, which was a Delta mainstay until the early 1980s.

Scratching for a new livelihood ever since, northern native communities have gone through a change of heart about gas development. The Delta Inuvialuit are among the most enthusiastic members of the Aboriginal Pipeline Group, which holds a one-third interest in the C$5 billion (US$4 billion) project sponsored by Imperial Oil, Shell Canada, ConocoPhillips Canada and ExxonMobil Canada.

Anderson indicated the next step will be to draw the Dene communities of the Mackenzie Valley into the process in similar fashion to the Inuvialuit. A co-operation agreement among 13 federal, aboriginal and Northwest Territories agencies calls ultimately for formation of a co-operative agency to deal with the arctic gas project in a single regulatory forum.

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