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With Keystone XL Delayed, Tar Sands Fight Turns to Enbridge Pipeline

Indigenous Groups Organizing to Halt Pipeline through British Columbia

With approval of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline stalled by the White House, the battle over the expansion of the Alberta tar sands and continuation of the carbon economy has turned to Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline. Northern Gateway calls for a 1,177-kilometer pipeline to send approximately 550,000 barrels of raw tar sands bitumen a day to a coastal terminus for transportation to markets in Asia and California. The proposed twin pipeline to Kitimat, British Columbia is the primary opportunity for increased tar sands crude production – the second largest crude oil reserve on the planet at approximately 170 billion barrels and the major driver of the Canadian economy.

But as far as First Nations leaders in British Columbia are concerned, the pipeline will never be built through their territories. On December 1, leaders of First Nations groups across the province signed the Save The Fraser Declaration that unites the groups in opposition to Northern Gateway and any other pipeline expansion in their backyards, which includes the critical salmon habitat of the Fraser River watershed.

It states: “We will not allow the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines, or similar Tar Sands projects, to cross our lands, territories and watersheds, or the ocean migration routes of Fraser River salmon.”

In total, 130 First Nations groups signed onto the declaration, effectively encompassing the entire coastline of British Columbia and creating a wall of opposition running from the border of the United States straight through the province to Alaska.

“North or south, it makes no difference. First Nations from every corner of BC are saying absolutely no tar sands pipelines or tankers in our territories,” said Chief Jackie Thomas of Saik’iz First Nation, a member of the Yinka Dene Alliance, in a prepared statement. “We have banned oil pipelines and tankers using our laws, and we will defend our decision using all the means at our disposal.”

The primary risk that First Nations fear is an oil spill either from the pipeline itself or from the tankers that would be ply the coastal waters for the first time in history. Enbridge doesn’t have a glowing track record when it comes to pipeline safety.

“Oil spills from the Enbridge pipelines would be inevitable,” said Thomas. “That risk to our livelihoods is unacceptable. Enbridge has spills all over North America, including the big Michigan spill earlier this year. We refuse to be next.”

Enbridge spokesperson Paul Stanway was quoted as saying First Nations opposition the project is not unanimous and the company is and will continue to work with groups on the project that could bring some $1 billion in economic benefits to the area. This has been the company line for some time, but no names of First Nations groups working with the company had been released. That changed on December 2, the day following the declaration, when Hereditary Chief Elmer Derrick issued a statement on behalf of the Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs announcing they were becoming a partner in the ownership of the Northern Gateway project. The Gitxsan community is located in the northwestern corner of British Columbia 700-km north of Vancouver.

“Over time we have established a relationship of trust with Enbridge, we have examined and assessed this project, and we believe it can be built and operated safely,” said Chief Derrick. “We believe that the construction of this pipeline is of vital importance to the future of Canadian energy security and prosperity.”

Janet Holder, an Enbridge executive vice-president, complimented Chief Derrick’s “vision.”

No sooner had the news appeared in print, conveniently plastered on front pages across the country (as opposed to news of the 130 First Nations releasing their declaration, which was given far less attention), than cracks began to show in the Gitxsan position that indicate the deal is at least contentious. A number of chiefs – lead by Chief Councillor Marjorie McRae of the Gitanmaax Indian Band and Hereditary Chief Guuhadawk, Norman Stephens – are speaking out against the deal saying that “Mr. Derrick has embarrassed and shamed the Gitxsan people by undermining the 61 First Nations who are opposed to the project.”

Although Enbridge maintains that the Gitxsan deal is the first of many with First Nations in the area, if this is the best the company can muster as a public relations response to the 130-strong Save the Fraser Declaration, the deal is far from a sure-thing.

Then again, the major trick up Enbridge’s sleeve will always be the unwavering support of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who called the project “important to Canada,” during an APEC meeting in Hawai‘i. And, with a strong majority government in the House of Commons, that support could go a long way.

The $5.5 billion Northern Gateway project is currently under review by the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project Joint Review Panel. Starting Jan. 10, 2012, the panel will hold public meetings in a slew of B.C. communities with input from thousands of concerned residents.

Ron Johnson
Is based in Toronto, Canada, where he is an editor for Post City magazines and contributes to The Globe and Mail, Maclean’s, The National Post and the London Business Times.

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