The key Alberta link in Canada’s Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline project faces a fight to the finish, with a resistant aboriginal community straddling the entrance to the North American natural gas grid.

“We are participating in these hearings under protest,” Chief James Ahnassay told a two-day session of the environmental Joint Review Panel on the C$7.5 billion (US$6.8 billion) Mackenzie Gas Project in High Level, a big native community and developing industrial center 750 kilometers (450 miles) northwest of the provincial capital of Edmonton.

“We question the legitimacy of these hearings,” the chief said, adding that the process has become “deeply hurtful and insulting to us.”

The hard feelings were inflamed by divided control over the project that left the natives’ fate up to TransCanada PipeLines and the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board (AEUB), said Victoria lawyer Bob Freedman, who also has filed a Dene Tha’ grievance lawsuit in the Federal Court of Canada. The case, still in early stages, seeks to prod national authorities into seizing jurisdiction over the Alberta leg in the northern pipeline in the belief that they will do a better job of looking after native interests.

In the Northwest Territories native settlements along the 1,194 kilometers (720 miles) of the proposed Mackenzie Valley pipeline are looked after by the National Energy Board, the review panel of federal and territorial environmental agencies, a C$500 million federal community support program, and industrial benefits deals with megaproject sponsors Imperial Oil, Shell Canada and ConocoPhillips Canada, Freedman pointed out.

But the help stops where the line crosses the territorial boundary with Alberta for its last 103 kilometres (62 miles) to connect with the mainstream gas grid northwest of High Level near the British Columbia border, Ahnassay and Freedman said.

In Alberta, the northern pipeline’s final piece is structured as a routine extension of the established TransCanada system. The approach disguises the crucial southern link as a minor project by the standards of Alberta industry and pipeline regulation, the Dene Tha’ chief and his community’s lawyer said.

TransCanada made its construction application as the northern pipeline hearings ventured into Alberta for the first time since the environmental panel and the NEB began roving reviews of the Mackenzie project six months ago in Inuvik.

The hearings are scheduled to continue through December in the NWT, with both national agencies visiting every significant settlement in the path of the project, sometimes more than once. But only one more foray into Alberta is planned in September, when the NEB itinerary has a two-day stop in High Level. The panel cancelled Edmonton and Calgary appearances in June, saying too few public interveners stepped forward to justify the trip.

The proposed Alberta link will be built for C$212 million by 400 workers in a single construction season, TransCanada said. After completion, the connection will be run by remote control from Calgary and serviced or inspected by helicopter patrols. No new northern employees or disruptive roads will be needed, the pipeline company added.

In preliminary sparring before the northern hearings, the NEB rejected pleas by the Dene Tha’ for the federal authority to try and take control of the northern pipeline’s Alberta connection away from the AEUB. The environmental panel also formally refused to pick a jurisdictional fight with Alberta and TransCanada.

The environmental review has no power to make Alberta enforce any directives for preserving wildlife, habitat or communities that the northern pipeline hearings produce, panel member Rowland Harrison said.

Dene Tha’ elders and trappers told the review panel their 2,500-citizen aboriginal nation still treasures old nomadic hunting ways and the pipeline threatens livelihoods on their traditional territory. The community claims rights to rove and hunt on about 83,000 square kilometres (32,000 square miles) of woods, lakes and muskeg spanning northern Alberta and B.C. and the southern NWT.

Half a century of oil and gas activity in the region has done little for its aboriginal inhabitants, Ahnassay said. Unemployment among the Dene Tha’ is about 90% even though their land is a resource-rich industry hot spot that fuels about 1,000 drilling and development applications to the AEUB every month, the environmental panel was told.

Community ownership partnerships in five drilling rigs with Western Lakota Energy Services generate few jobs because subtle forms of discrimination still make entering industry tough for natives, Ahnassay said in an interview. The rigs turned out to be a better source of investment income than employment, he added.

TransCanada executive Rob Kendel assured the environmental panel the firm is working with the Dene Tha’ under a 2004 “community co-operation protocol.” The agreement is confidential and covers more than 2,000 kilometres (1,242 miles) of gas pipelines built previously in the High Level region, he added.

But the protocol does not guarantee safe passage into Alberta for the northern pipeline, Ahnassay indicated. “Although we have tried to adapt, there comes a breaking point. We have reached that,” the Dene Tha’ chief said. “We have seen that a new pipeline leads to additional activity time and time again.”

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