Aboriginal and environmental critics have been put on notice that Canada’s Arctic natural gas project will be allowed to advance through the regulatory process without becoming bogged down by protests.

Rather than wait for resolutions of court cases and political appeals aimed at freezing the C$7-billion (US$5.6-billion) Mackenzie Gas Project in its tracks, a Joint Review Panel of federal and Northwest Territories authorities has launched the formal environmental and socio-economic assessments of the development plan.

The panel set a target of “before December” for completing an “adequacy determination” of what if any further information will have to be provided by the consortium of Imperial Oil, Shell Canada, ConocoPhillips Canada and the Aboriginal Pipeline Group. Public hearings could begin as early as March 2005 depending on the completeness of encyclopedia-length construction applications filed last month, the panel indicated.

Action was allowed to speak for itself as the panel declared its intentions to go to work without comment on legal and political duels over the northern gas development. Discussions continued regarding lawsuits aimed at halting the review. Lawsuits were filed in September by Deh Cho First Nations from the southern reaches of the Mackenzie Valley.

The Sierra Club of Canada, meanwhile, in Ottawa widened a political challenge initially launched by an environmental coalition, the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee.

Deh Cho leaders traveled to the Canadian capital for talks on their lawsuits’ claims that they should appoint two of seven review panel members. Aboriginal and government leaders started the discussions by signing a confidentiality pact, but word was spread that they also made a “framework agreement” of mutual resolutions to seek a settlement of the case.

While the Deh Cho have vowed to keep the proposed Mackenzie Valley Pipeline out of their southern one-third of the territories, three other native populations that inhabit the rest of the route are defending the project. The Inuvialuit and Gwich’in on the Mackenzie Delta and in the northern end of the valley, and the Sahtu in the middle of the route, have threatened to fight the Deh Cho in court as stockholders in the Aboriginal Pipeline Group and its one-third ownership of the project.

The rare open split in the northern aboriginal community was understood to have been the motivating factor for the Deh Cho leadership to appeal for territorial and federal authorities to help resolve the dispute.

Although the Deh Cho territory accounts for the longest single stretch of the proposed 760-mile pipeline, 75% of the route and all the gas gathering and production systems are on Inuvialuit, Gwich’in and Sahtu territory. While Imperial, as senior and operating partner in the Mackenzie consortium, has repeatedly stated the project can only go ahead if it secures aboriginal cooperation, the company has not stipulated 100% northern support will be necessary.

The Sierra Club, meanwhile, scored rhetorical points but made no difference in the environmental panel’s determination to proceed on the northern project. the Canadian environmentalists said that northern and federal politicians need to rethink support for “fossil-fuel industrialization” of the Arctic in light of an international scientific report, The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, released in Iceland Nov. 8. The report forecasts rising temperatures, melting ice, rising sea levels and erosion that will lead to a “looming climatic catastrophe” for northern Canada, the Sierra Club said.

As a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol on curbing greenhouse gas emissions of carbon dioxide, Canada owes the world prevention of projects that would worsen global warming, the environmentalists said. The four-year study by 300 scientists ended in predictions of disappearing arctic sea ice, extinction of polar bears and seals, worsening public health and food supply problems for northern aboriginal populations, and damage to coastal towns and facilities.

“Much worse is that Mackenzie gas would fuel the ramped-up extraction of oil from the Alberta tar sands…the worst for the atmosphere,” the Canadian environmentalists added. Heat processes of oilsands projects use up to 1.2 Mcf of gas per barrel of crude they produce. By the time the Mackenzie project can reach full anticipated deliveries of 1.9 Bcf/d, rapidly expanding oilsands developments in northern Alberta are forecast to require all the northern gas and potentially more.

“Greenhouse-gas emissions from the tar sands projects are projected to grow to 70 megatons (million tons) by 2010 — or 12% of Canada’s overall Kyoto target — from 17 megatons in 1990. Tar sands developments could blow any chance Canada has of meeting its Kyoto Protocol obligations,” the Sierra Club predicted.

But Canadian conservationists earlier this year lost a battle to have the Mackenzie project’s environmental review consider the end uses of northern gas. The joint federal and territorial panel showed no signs of budging on the issue, saying only that it hopes to start its technical review of the production and pipeline project by late fall or the beginning of winter.

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