For some First Nations people in Northeast B.C., liquefied natural gas means jobs and opportunity.
For others, it means a threat to lands, animals and traditional food sources hammered by decades of oil and gas development.
The federal government’s decision last month to approve Pacific NorthWest LNG, the Petronas-led proposal to ship super-cooled natural gas from B.C. to Asia, highlighted those disagreements among coastal First Nations near the proposed terminal on Lelu Island.
If Petronas decides to build the plant, there would be a ramp-up in drilling in the opposite corner of the province, on the territories of Indigenous groups that have already seen their traditional lands and ways of life transformed by steadily increasing oil and gas production.
Some Northeast B.C. First Nations are critical of the project and the 900-kilometre pipeline that would carry gas to the coast. Others welcome the potential jobs, while others are still figuring out what LNG would mean for their communities.
Progress Energy, upstream subsidiary of Pacific NorthWest LNG, has drilled hundreds of wells in the region to prove gas reserves for the project. According to an analysis by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the company would need to drill around around 200 more wells per year to meet production targets.
“We’ll see a lot of areas that have already been heavily hit hit even harder with more wells, more roads, more access, more water usage—all the things that go along with fracking,” said Saulteau First Nations Chief Nathan Parenteau.
Opinion on LNG varies among First Nations on the coast. Some have signed benefits agreements with the company, while others say the project poses an unacceptable risk to the environment and the Skeena River salmon fishery.
The situation is similar in the Peace Region. Unlike on the coast, though, nations in Northeast B.C. have a treaty with the government. Treaty 8, signed in 1899, covers Northeast B.C. and was the last settled treaty in B.C. until the Nisga’a signed a treaty in 2000.
The Treaty 8 Tribal Association, which represents seven First Nations in Northeast B.C., does not have a position on Pacific Northwest LNG.
“It’s not part of our mandate to have a position,” said Diane Abel, director of administration with the tribal association. “The communities have their own autonomy and they like to have their say.”
Among and within those communities, opinion is diverse.
North of the Peace
Many of the new wells drilled if the LNG project goes forward would be north of the Peace River, near the reserves of the Prophet River, Halfway River and Blueberry River First Nations.
Prophet River Chief Lynette Tsakoza said her staff was still investigating how Pacific NorthWest LNG would affect the nation, which is also involved in a federal lawsuit against the Site C dam.
“There will be a bunch of concerns about the environment,” she said. “Right now it’s just too early (to say).”
Blueberry River First Nation, which has a reserve northwest of Fort St. John near Progress Energy operations, has criticized industry’s “cumulative” impact on Treaty rights to hunt, fish and live on the land. The nation filed a lawsuit last year claiming decades of government-permitted resource development, including thousands of gas wells, has violated Treaty 8.
Chief Marvin Yahey could not be reached for comment last week. In June, he said forestry, oil and gas and hydroelectric development across Blueberry’s traditional territory were “(bringing) our unique culture close to extinction.”
Others in the community say the industry is a crucial source of jobs for First Nations people.
Clarence Apsassin runs an oilfield service company that employs up to 80 people when times are good—more than half of them First Nations members.
“We want to see the LNG,” he said. “It’s a short-term opportunity, but it’s also an opportunity for us to put some economy back in our cities and our towns, and especially in the Blueberry reserve. I’m employing more people from those communities than anyone else. The more I can employ, the better it is.”
Saulteau pans pipeline project
The south side of the Peace River would see less drilling activity but more pipeline development.
The Prince Rupert Gas Transmission line, a 900-kilometre TransCanada project, would carry gas from fields north of Hudson’s Hope to the coast, past the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations reserves.
Parenteau said the nation opposes the current pipeline route, which crosses the Moberly River more than a dozen times.
“We’re against bad mitigation measures around the pipelines and the project," he said. "We had to oppose (the pipeline) because of its current route.”
As for the potential jobs: “there would be temporary jobs, a few months long, then that’s it. And we’re left with all the possible repercussions from a spill or a leak or other environmental damages.”
He said pipeline and other oil and gas developments have opened up the backcountry, making it easy for wolves to decimate caribou and moose populations—part of the reason the provincial government has begun a wolf cull in the South Peace. There are also social impacts. Human rights group Amnesty International, for example, is in the midst of an investigation into resource development and missing and murdered Indigenous women in Northeast B.C.
According to the First Nations LNG Alliance, 16 of 19 First Nations along the pipeline route have reached benefits agreements with the province, including the Doig River and Halfway Rivers First Nations and the McLeod Lake Indian Band.
TransCanada, meanwhile, has reached agreements with those nations, as well as Blueberry River.
On the coast, Pacific NorthWest LNG has facilities agreements with just two of six eligible First Nations, according to the alliance.
The Lax Kw’alaams, which initially voted to oppose the project, later approved an agreement in a referendum this summer.
Messages with Fort Nelson, West Moberly, Halfway River and Doig River First Nations were not returned by press time.