First Nations groups slam Liberal reforms to pipeline reviews

Shawn McCarthy
Patricia Kelly, left, of the Sto:lo First Nation, marches with Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, right, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, to a protest outside National Energy Board hearings on the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion in Burnaby, B.C., on Jan. 19, 2016. (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The Liberal plan to instill confidence in environmental assessments for pipeline megaprojects was panned Thursday by several First Nations groups as well as the mayor of Burnaby, B.C., who accused the federal government of being captured by the oil industry.

In a joint statement, First Nations leaders from B.C., Manitoba and Quebec slammed as “modest” the reforms to the resource projects review process announced by the Liberal government, saying Ottawa needs be prepared “to take no for an answer” from indigenous communities with regard to major pipelines that will cross their traditional territory.

Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr and Environment Minister Catherine McKenna pledged Wednesday to conduct extensive consultations with indigenous communities before deciding whether to approve Kinder Morgan Inc.’s proposed expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline to Vancouver or TransCanada’s planned Energy East line from Alberta to New Brunswick.

They also said the government would assess the impact such projects would have on greenhouse gas emissions in the oil sector, though Ms. McKenna said such a review would be one of many factors going into cabinet decisions.

In a telephone interview, Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan said he was “severely disappointed” in the measures, noting that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had promised during the election campaign to overhaul the environmental review process and force Kinder Morgan to resubmit its expansion proposal.

“It’s clear the oil company lobbyists and the lobbyists for the pipelines have gotten to the Liberals very quickly, and suddenly we’re hearing a very different tune from ministers and from the Prime Minister,” said Mr. Corrigan, whose community lies at the terminus of the Kinder Morgan line. “During the election, it was ‘re-start the process, the public has no faith’ … and now we’re hearing a desperation to get this oil to the shore.”

In a release Thursday, the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, and the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs said the new measures – which include an assessment of projects’ impacts on greenhouse gas emissions – fall well short of what is needed to instill confidence among aboriginal people.

“It’s unfortunate that we were not consulted about the planned reforms because we could have signalled ahead of time that such reforms did not go nearly far enough,” Regional Chief Ghislain Picard, of the Quebec and Labrador assembly, said in a statement.

In announcing the additional measures, the Liberal ministers said Ottawa needed to restore public trust in the project review process to win social licence for new pipelines, which the Alberta government and industry insist are critical to the province’s economic well-being. They said the new rules would add four months for a decision on the Kinder Morgan project, now with a December deadline; they lengthened the Energy East project by nine months to the fall of 2018.

Conservative critics accuse the Liberals of failing the Western oil-producing provinces and resource industry workers by imposing new delays and maintaining a neutral stand on the need for new pipelines. Company spokesmen said they worried about the delays imposed by the new rules, but hoped they would help generate broader public support for their projects.

First Nations leaders are essentially demanding a veto over resource projects that pose environmental risks to their traditional territory. In their statement Thursday, the aboriginal leaders said the current National Energy Board review process is deeply flawed, with a lack of cross-examination of companies’ evidence, artificial timelines and the exclusion of key evidence.

“In regard to the threats that are represented by heavy-oil pipelines proposals, the inherent risks to the environment – to the rivers, streams and eco-systems – are just so great that sometimes No is the only answer,” Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, said in an interview.

Asked what his message was to Albertans and other Canadians who rely on the industry for their livelihood, Chief Phillip said: “They have to wake up and smell the coffee …

“This is at the point in the history of this planet that we need to undertake that paradigm shift to other forms of energy – solar power, wind power and other means. We can’t just simply continue this obsession with such developments as the tar sands,” he said.

Alberta Environment Minister Shannon Phillips welcomed the federal measures, saying they would help bolster public confidence. And she said critics should take into account the NDP government’s actions to impose carbon pricing, a cap on oil-sands emissions and measures to ensure the industry operates responsibly.

“It is a new day with respect to the environmental responsibilities that Alberta has taken on its energy development,” she said in an interview.