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Aboriginal Northern Gateway Alternative Emerges

Is Eagle Spirit the cure for what ails Alberta’s pipeline problem?

Tim Querengesser is senior editor with Alberta Venture. Email Tim

Apr 17, 2014

by Tim Querengesser

Northern Gateway, Enbridge’s proposed conduit for Alberta bitumen to shipping routes in the Pacific, is a failed relationship. Just this week, Kitimat – where Northern Gateway would feed a proposed port facility on the B.C.’s northern coast – voted against the project in a non-binding plebiscite. The company’s relationships with many First Nation communities, most especially those along the coast, are even more fractured. But just when all hope for moving Alberta oil to global markets through a pipeline in northern B.C. appeared lost, an unexpected First Nations-led proposal has emerged, called Eagle Spirit Energy. It’s most promising feature is the quality of its relationships. So, is it the silver bullet that some hope? Well, that isn’t so clear.

This week, as reported in the Financial Post, Eagle Spirit Energy Holdings and their partners, the Aquilini Group from Vancouver, which owns the Canucks, announced that they hope to build a one million bpd alternative to Northern Gateway, with a terminal at Grassy Point on the northern Pacific coast. They also announced they have signed non-disclosure agreements with several First Nations, which suggests significant aboriginal support. Eagle Spirit’s biggest, most salient pitch, after all, isn’t their pipeline experience – they acknowledge they don’t have much – but their relationships. The consortium is composed of leading aboriginal business people, including Dave Tuccaro and Calvin Helin, and the group has been speaking for more than a year with First Nations along what it hopes will become an energy corridor, featuring oil and gas pipelines and other infrastructure, in northern B.C.

As reported last year in the Globe and Mail, First Nations along the route would have a proposed 50 percent-ownership stake in whatever infrastructure is built, a far more lucrative chunk than the 10 per cent currently offered by Enbridge for Northern Gateway. And that’s why some see the idea, as the Globe and Mail’s Nathan VanderKlippe wrote in 2013, as a needed “a third way” to move oil through northern B.C. First Nations will stand to benefit far more from Eagle Spirit than just through wage-labour construction jobs, as with Northern Gateway, and that benefit could prove decisive in seeing opposition to a pipeline dissipate.

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Indeed, while most pipelines talk of licenses from governing bodies like the National Energy Board, or of land negotiations centred on Crown land, the consortium has talked of the different type of support that it is building. As Helin told the Financial Post, “The only licence that matters to do this [project] in British Columbia is the social licence from the First Nations community.” And as VanderKlippe noted a year ago, Eagle Spirit has started negotiations with Ottawa on aboriginal land along its proposed corridor. That’s critical: unlike most of Canada, land in northern B.C. was never ceded to Canada, meaning many First Nations there consider indigenous land title as far more legitimate than Canada’s land claim. As resource companies can attest, the lack of treaties in the region makes all attempts to build infrastructure, pipelines included, highly complex.

Still, while Eagle Spirit’s aboriginal ownership might suggest that the project is a silver bullet, it faces the same opposition in critical areas as Enbridge’s proposal does. The Lax Kw’alaams First Nation, where Eagle Spirit’s proposed pipeline would meet the Pacific coast, is vehemently against oil, period. As reported by CBC, a meeting between the Lax Kw’alaams First Nation and Eagle Spirit earlier this year was clear on that point. “I remember one of the hereditary chiefs getting up and asking the question, ‘What part of ‘no’ don’t you boys understand?’ We don’t want the oil to come through our territory at all,” Murray Smith, a Lax Kw’alaams elder, told CBC. “Nothing will change our mind, because the chances of losing our sea resources is very, very strong. We’ve got clam beds, we’ve got salmon of all sorts passing through the territory. And they don’t want to risk that at any cost.”

That opposition is up against what some see as fate for an oil pipeline from Alberta to the Pacific. “For Canada we believe there will be an [oil] pipeline,” David Negrin, president of the Aquilini Group, told the Globe and Mail last year. “We believe it’s inevitable.”

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