Making Peace With Big Oil, Tribal Canadians Buy In 

vancouver, british columbia — 

Some of Canada’s Indigenous peoples, after years of protesting their exclusion from the approval, development and profit from resource extraction industries on their traditional lands, are adopting a new strategy – buying in.

The approach is scrambling long-established fault lines between the tribes – commonly known in Canada as First Nations – and industrial interests while leaving environmentalists in an awkward position regarding their long-standing allies in the fight against Big Oil.

It has also placed Native groups on opposite sides of some pipeline disputes, though few are willing to criticize what they see as an attempt to improve the living standards of some of the continent’s most disadvantaged people.

One of the most notable moves involves Enbridge Inc., which was a partner in the Dakota Access Pipeline that prompted huge and highly publicized protests by Native Americans in Standing Rock, North Dakota, in 2016 and 2017.

FILE - A general view shows an Enbridge oil sands processing facility near Fort McKay, Alberta, on Sept. 7, 2022.

Last September, Enbridge announced a deal in which 23 First Nation and Metis communities acquired an 11.57% interest in seven Enbridge-operated pipelines in the Canadian province of Alberta, marking the largest energy-related partnership of its kind in North America.

Financing for the $830 million investment was facilitated through loan guarantees from a provincial government-owned corporation.

In the Pacific coastal province of British Columbia, another consortium of First Nations, known as the Western Indigenous Pipeline Group, is seeking to purchase the Trans Mountain Pipeline, which carries oil across the Rocky Mountains from Alberta to a seaport near Vancouver.

The Canadian government bought the pipeline from Texas-based Kinder Morgan in 2018 in a bid to push through a major expansion, which would boost the pipeline’s capacity from 300,000 barrels a day to 890,000 barrels.

The scheme has been long opposed by several Coast Salish First Nations in the Vancouver area and in northwestern Washington state, who worry that the project will mean up to 34 China-bound oil tankers a month carrying bitumen through the strait between Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state.

In 2018, Canada’s National Energy Board recommended the pipeline plan be approved, despite recognizing the harm the increased oil tanker traffic may cause to the Southern Resident killer whales, who swim through the area.

‘Great things’

Chief Willie Sellars of the Williams Lake First Nation, located about 500 km north of Vancouver, told VOA he had decided to back the consortium because developing successful and diversified business relationships helps his band members.

“It’s a resource-based economy here in Williams Lake. It’s mining and forestry [and the] pipeline,” he said. “And there are benefits that are flowing from these major projects back into our community that are allowing us to do great things — fund 100% of our post-secondary [university] applicants, fund 100% of our trades, training applicants fund, fully staffed recreation department and elders group. Build new administration buildings.”

First Nations have found themselves coming down on opposite sides of other projects as well.

The Coastal GasLink pipeline, which is to carry natural gas from Dawson Creek — a stop on the Alaska Highway in northeastern British Columbia — to a seaport in Kitimat, 1,400 km northwest of Vancouver, got the approval of the elected First Nations councils along the route.

FILE - Protesters stand outside the Ministry of Health as part of a demonstration against the Coastal GasLink pipeline, in Victoria, British Columbia, Feb. 14, 2020.

But it has met stiff opposition from the hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, which has staged protests and roadblocks in Vancouver.

Sellars said he was not worried that his nation’s investment in the Trans Mountain Pipeline would bring his band into conflict with other First Nations who oppose the project.

“Working with so many different Indigenous communities in this province and in this country — and we’re talking to hundreds of communities — we’re never all going to see eye to eye, and we realize that,” he said.

“But at the end of the day, we still respect each other regardless. It will still hold up every single one of those communities that even oppose a pipeline project or a mining project. But, you know, we are not all the same, and that’s what we have to realize as well.”

Questions about cost, demand

Rueben George, manager of the Sacred Trust for the Tsleil-Waututh, which is trying to stop the expansion, agrees there is nothing wrong with other First Nations making agreements with pipeline companies to overcome poverty from decades of colonialism.

But he makes an economic argument against the Trans Mountain project, which would terminate directly in front of the tract in suburban Vancouver occupied by his 600-member nation.

“I don’t see anything nor does my nation see anything bad about any nation making an agreement with a pipeline. Because I know some of them are negotiating for better housing and better care for their people,” he told VOA.

But he said the rising cost of the pipeline, along with the prospect of diminishing future demand for fossil fuels, makes it a poor investment for the consortium members.

“From our own studies that we see, it’s a stranded asset,” he said. “So what it could potentially be for some First Nations is, it’s like economic smallpox.”

The reference has special resonance for Indigenous North Americans, who suffered massive devastation after smallpox was introduced to the continent by European settlers.

Eugene Kung, staff lawyer at West Coast Environmental Law Association. (Courtesy Eugene Kung)

The economic argument against the expansion is echoed by environmentalists like Eugene Kung, staff lawyer at West Coast Environmental Law Association in Vancouver.

“One of the challenges, and just as a practical reality, with a linear piece of infrastructure is that it needs to be 100% complete to be 1% effective. Can’t have a linear project, like a pipeline, with a 1% hole, or gaps in it. It just doesn’t work that way,” he said in an interview.

Kung noted that construction of the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion was several years behind schedule, and he argued that the increasing costs of the project would make it less financially viable for the would-be investors.

“Today, here we are, 2023, the costs have increased almost fourfold to almost $21.4 billion [$16 billion USD],” he said. “So in terms of the kind of potential reward from owning the pipeline, and the incomes and revenue that may come from that, and then compare that with the risks and liabilities – it’s really, I think, a really challenging economic prospect moving forward.”

George Hoberg, professor at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia. (Courtesy University of British Columbia)

George Hoberg, a professor at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia, said that while the rise of First Nations as an investment class may ease some old tensions between the First Nations and industrialists, new kinds of conflicts are going to emerge.

“And we’re going to see our conflicts between First Nations as deciders on projects, and environmentalists who disagree with what First Nations want to do with those resources — whether that’s a pipeline that brings fossil fuels on to market or whether it’s harvesting old growth forests, or other things such as that,” he told VOA.


Published on 2023-02-12

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Originally posted as: Making Peace With Big Oil, Tribal Canadians Buy In , made available by Voice of America under the terms of the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal license.

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