APTN National News
The Harper cabinet has approved construction of Enbridge’s highly controversial Northern Gateway pipeline project, setting the stage for a confrontation that could spread from courtrooms to the mountains to the coasts of British Columbia.
The Harper government said the project still needed to meet 209 conditions set out by the National Energy Board’s (NEB) joint review panel. The pipeline received the NEB’s blessing in December as long as it met those conditions. In a statement, Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford said Enbridge has “more work to do” on consultation with First Nation communities.
“Today consitutes another step in the process. Moving forward, the proponent must demonstrate to the independent regulator, the NEB, how it will meet the 209 conditions,” said Rickford, in the statement.
Enbridge’s proposed $7 billion Northern Gateway pipeline project would ship Alberta tar sands bitumen to the B.C. coast where it would be loaded onto tankers destined primarily for Asian markets like China. The pipeline would run 1,178 kilometres from Bruderheim, Alta., to Kitimat, B.C, and pump 525,000 barrels per day onto tankers.
It has been a highly controversial project that has already triggered federal court challenges from First Nations. A pipeline opposition rally is planned in Vancouver for Tuesday evening. Shortly after the Harper government announced its decision, 23 B.C. First Nations and eight tribal councils and First Nation political organizations issued a statement saying they were going to court to stop the project.
“We unequivocally reject the Harper Government’s decision to approve the Enbridge Northern Gateway tanker and pipelines project and First Nations will immediately go to court to vigorously pursue all lawful means to stop the Enbridge project,” said the statement. “We will defend our territories whatever the costs may be.”
Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs president Grand Chief Stewart Phillip said the pipeline will meet unprecedented opposition from First Nations.
“For First Nations who have unceded Title and Rights over our territories we will do everything necessary and whatever it takes to stop this project,” said Phillip. “We are prepared to go to unprecedented lengths to conserve and protect our territories and waters from heavy oil.”
Assembly of First Nations regional chief for B.C. Jody Wilson-Raybould said the battle over the pipeline will be a “defining moment” in Canadian history.
“It is extremely unfortunate and frustrating that the federal government has seen fit to approve Northern Gateway in the face of overwhelming public opposition including First Nations whose Aboriginal title and rights and other concerns have not been satisfactorily addressed,” said Wilson-Raybould.
Heiltsuk Nation Chief Marilyn Slett said Ottawa’s decision is just “another round” in the pipeline fight.
“This decision represents the end of another round in a long fight to protect our lands, waters and resources. We will not back down,” said Slett.
Enbridge CEO Al Monaco said that the company welcomed Ottawa’s decision and is not worried about the threatened court action from First Nations. Monaco said the court challenges would be heard by the Federal Court of Appeal which would be working on a set schedule.
“This is not an endless process as some are suggesting,” said Monaco, during a conference call with reporters. “There is a definitive timeline that this won’t go on forever in terms of endless legal battles.”
Monaco said that it will take the company about 12 to 15 months to meet the required conditions and officials would use that time to reengage with First Nations along the pipeline route.
“Reengaging the First Nations is a big priority for us,” he said. “What is crystal clear is that safety and environmental protection have to come first.”
Monaco said Enbridge would be “continuing to engage with BC communities and Aboriginal bands to build further trust where we have not been able to do to date.”
B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak said Enbridge still had to meet four of the five conditions required by the province for its backing. B.C.’s outstanding conditions include the need for “world-class” spill recovery on land and in the water, a better relationship with First Nations and a cut of the revenues for provincial coffers. The first condition hinged on the project getting federal approval.
“There is still much work that needs to be done,” Polak told reporters Tuesday, following the announcement.
Monaco said Enbridge would be holding talks with the B.C. government and meet its conditions, which are in addition to those set out by the NEB.
Federal opposition parties also blasted the federal government and each said it would be an election issue during the next federal election in 2015.
NDP leader Tom Mulcair said an NDP government, if elected in 2015, would not let the project go forward.
“This rip and ship approach by the federal government is the antithesis of sustainable development,” said Mulcair.
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau also criticized the Harper government’s decision on Northern Gateway and says a Liberal government would kill the project.
“I will not be approving this pipeline,” said Trudeau.
The majority of Indigenous communities along its route opposed the project and have vowed to stop it. Enbridge, however, has signed about 26 equity agreements with individual First Nation and Metis communities in Alberta and B.C.
One of the flashpoints in the battle over the pipeline is expected in the province’s interior where the Unisto’ot’en camp has dug in near the project’s route. The camp, led by the Unist’ot’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en people, has dug in for several years on the Northern Gateway’s proposed pipeline route and sits about 1,000 kilometres north of Vancouver.
Art Sterritt, executive director for the Coastal First Nations, says the pipeline will face resistance from the moment the first bits of earth are moved for its construction.
“Anybody tries sticking shovels in the ground, there’ll be First Nations there to stop them,” said Sterritt, whose organization represents an alliance of First Nations along the province’s north and central coast.
The alliance includes Wuikinuxv Nation, Heiltsuk, Kitasoo/Xaixais, Nuxalk Nation, Gitga’at, Metlakatla, Old Massett, Skidegate, and the Council of the Haida Nation.
Sterritt said the battle of over the pipeline will be a “defining moment” on the issue of Aboriginal rights and title.
“We are not going to lay down for this,” he said.
Coastal First Nations believe the risk posed by a raw bitumen tanker spill outweighs any of the economic benefits promised by the pipeline project.
Enbridge has been pushing for the pipeline since March 6, 2002, when initially announced its plans to flow Alberta tar sands bitumen to the B.C. coast. Three years later, in 2005, the company announced it had a deal with PetroChina to build the pipeline. After an about five year pause, the Calgary-based firm filed its application with the National Energy Board for the project in March 2010. That same month, Coast First Nations declared a ban on supertankers off their coasts.
The project has also created headaches for the B.C. provincial government, which announced in July 2012 that it could not support the project unless it met five conditions, which included a cut of the revenues. Ottawa, which has been a consistent backer of the project, has done all it can to assuage fears over potential spills and announced new pipeline safety rules this past May. This was preceded by a March 2013 announcement on changes to safety rules for oil tankers and for pipeline spill liability inland.
Ottawa also launched a renewed push to woo First Nations last year and tapped Vancouver Doug Eyford to canvass communities and recommend ways for the federal government to improve its relationship with recalcitrant First Nations.