Aboriginal allies stepped forward last week to support the Mackenzie Gas Project, reviving hope that the C$7 billion (US$5.6 billion) natural gas development will find a way through the northern Canadian regulatory maze.

The allies include three of the four native nations affected by the proposed Arctic production, gathering and transmission system: the Inuvialuit and Gwich’in on the Mackenzie Delta, and the Sahtu in the central Mackenzie Valley. The trio teamed up to fight resistance mounted by the Deh Cho of the southern Northwest Territories.

Former territorial Premier Nellie Cournoyea did not mince words as she explained formation of the alliance to counter a protest lawsuit filed against the gas project by the Deh Cho: “It’s an insult and disrespect,” said Cournoyea, who is chair and CEO of Inuvialuit Regional Corp.

“It cannot be left up to a group that does not know what it wants to choke the rest of the people,” Cournoyea said in an interview from the Inuvialuit capital of Inuvik. “We may have to counter-sue. We’ll do everything we have to do,” said Cournoyea. “They have no right to be impeding our development.”

The fight broke out when the Deh Cho tried earlier this month to enlist support for the protest lawsuit they filed during September in the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories and the Federal Court of Canada, Cournoyea indicated.

Deh Cho Grand Chief Herb Norwegian stayed silent and was officially beyond reach on northern business as the other territorial groups made their position known. But he has pledged to prevent construction of the proposed 1,220-kilometre gas (760-mile) pipeline through the Mackenzie Valley from the Delta to northern Alberta.

“There will be no pipeline through the Deh Cho territory because Canada has refused to consider including us in the decision-making process. We will use every means necessary to stop it,” Norwegian said in announcing his community’s latest legal moves in mid-September.

The Mackenzie project sponsors, Imperial Oil, Shell Canada, ConocoPhillips Canada and ExxonMobil Canada, supported by TransCanada PipeLines, are not named as defendants in the protest lawsuit, although it has as much potential to stop them in their tracks as if they were directly affected.

The conflict stems from long-standing aboriginal political feuds with the national Canadian government, which observers such as gas analyst Paul Ziff and TransCanada president Hal Kvisle rate as potentially lethal to industry plans.

The fight centers on a demand for official status as an equal partner in the environmental review of the gas project. The Deh Cho claim rights to appoint two of seven members on a joint review panel of federal and territorial agencies. The lawsuit in both the territorial and national high courts demands an injunction to halt the environmental review until the Deh Cho are granted their demand.

The protest lawsuits claim the demand was unfairly denied because the Deh Cho lag behind the Inuvialuit, Gwich’in and Sahtu in reaching land claim settlements with the federal government. A years-old negotiation, institutionalized as the Deh Cho Process, continues with no sign of a breakthrough.

Inuvialuit authorities on the Mackenzie Delta are part of an agreement that created the joint panel, along with the Gwich’in and Sahtu as partners in the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board for northern and central parts of the valley.

The Deh Cho added insult to injury with inconsistent behaviour by catering to their own economic ambitions in their southern region of the Mackenzie Valley, but thwarting growth hopes of the more northerly Aboriginal communities, Cournoyea said. The Deh Cho have not picked legal and political fights over roads, bridges, mines, the Norman Wells oil pipeline and two gas developments on their own territory at Fort Liard and Cameron Hills.

The greatest environmental effects of the gas project will be on the Mackenzie Delta where it includes a network of production and processing facilities as well as the start of the pipeline with its biggest compressor station, Cournoyea said. In the Deh Cho district the gas project will be a simpler case of laying new pipe parallel to an oil route that has been in operation for about 20 years.

The Mackenzie project’s supporters further point out that the Deh Cho also retain observer status and rights to become stockholders along with the Inuvialuit, Gwich’in and Sahtu in the Aboriginal Pipeline Group, which owns a one-third interest in the proposed gas pipeline.

“If you just keep standing back nothing happens,” Cournoyea warned. As the new fight broke out, a federal announcement in Inuvik highlighted economic expectations raised by the Mackenzie project. Human Resources and Skills Development Canada pledged to cover C$9.9 million (US$7.4 million) or 75% of a C$13.3 million (US$10 million) government and industry program to train 1,400 northern Aboriginal workers for jobs, including 500 for the oil and gas sector.

The Mackenzie Gas Project was filed with Canadian regulators last week (see related story). The gas line would carry 1.2 Bcf/d initially, up by 20% or more from early versions of the plan launched five years ago. The load would grow to 1.9 Bcf/d by adding compressor power as the project stimulates new gas exploration and development. A long lineup of producers snapped up drilling leases in a territorial auction of prospects earlier this year.

Although consortium officials refrain from commenting on the lawsuits in order to avoid antagonizing any of the aboriginal groups, the support from the Inuvialuit, Gwich’in and Sahtu rippled through the companies as a morale booster. The consortium is keeping close track of the northern political and court tangle while also fielding a network of aboriginal relations professionals, a Canadian occupational group drawing on a wide range of expertise ranging from the law to environmental science, archeology and history.

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