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It’s early days for the long federal regulatory review into the Northern Gateway oil sands pipeline, but already it’s hard to feel optimistic that the project will get off the ground as proposed.
At least three major stumbling blocks surfaced repeatedly in the review’s important first days that are likely to dog the $5.5-billion pipeline, which would carry product from the Alberta oil sands to this community on the northern West Coast, throughout the two-year review process: aboriginal opposition, little community buy-in and lack of trust that it can be built safely.
They are essential building blocks of any major development in Western and Northern Canada, from liquefied natural gas plants coming to this town, to oil sands projects in Alberta, to potash mines in Saskatchewan. Even the much-delayed Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline had them largely nailed down before Imperial Oil Ltd. and its partners moved forward with an application for regulatory approval.
Meanwhile, cross-border environmental groups that were expected to influence the hearings have been a non-issue so far. Demonstrations were discouraged by the Haisla, a peaceful band that hosted the review’s start and put forward the first witnesses.
Like the Haisla, First Nations on the coast and in the B.C. interior will voice concerns that the benefits offered to aboriginal communities do not justify the risks of an oil spill to their food sources.
Those who believe it’s a bargaining position are mistaken, said Ellis Ross, the elected chief of the Haisla.
“Haisla is well aware of how rich we can get if we get on board with Enbridge,” he said. “Cash is there. Jobs are there. Royalty payments are there. I don’t think there is a limit when it comes to crude oil because they have tremendous amounts of cash. And quite frankly the issues in my community are unemployment, poverty, welfare. We could obliterate all those just by signing onto Enbridge. But is it worth the risk to expose our territory to that amount of destruction? Our people see the value of cash like any body else, but they can’t equate that to the damage to their territory.”
The Haisla, whose support is key to the project because the terminus is on land it claims as its traditional territory, do not fit the stereotype of the militant, badly run First Nation. They are based in nearby Kitamaat Village, a picturesque ocean-front reserve that has lived off hunting and fishing for 2,000 years. It has won financial awards for financial management. Recent partnerships with two proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants have enhanced its financial position, reducing pressure to support other projects. The sale of equity to one resulted in a $50-million payment — $15-million was distributed to members as a dividend, the rest was put in a trust fund for use by future generations.
For the rest of this column, please go to the National Post/Financial Post website: http://business.financialpost.com/2012/01/12/gateway-gate-may-be-closing/?__lsa=7f8bd6c2