First Na­tions di­vided over pipe­line plan

The Prince George Citizen - - Front Page - Amanda COLETTA

When Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau an­nounced he was ap­prov­ing the ex­pan­sion of the Trans Moun­tain oil pipe­line, Leah Ge­orge-Wil­son pre­pared for a fight.

Ge­orge-Wil­son, chief of the Tsleil-Wau­tuth First Na­tion in Van­cou­ver, said the $5.5 bil­lion ex­pan­sion will en­dan­ger the ecosys­tems of the in­let at the foot of her re­serve. She’s chal­leng­ing Trudeau’s de­ci­sion in court.

Some 400 km north­east, Chief Michael LeBour­dais of the Whis­per­ing Pines/Clin­ton In­dian Band near Kam­loops, was also fol­low­ing the gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion. Not be­cause he opposes the pipe­line. He wants to buy it.

LeBour­dais leads the West­ern In­dige­nous Pipe­line Group, one of sev­eral in­dige­nous-led coali­tions vy­ing for a stake in the project. The groups ar­gue that rev­enue from the pipe­line, which car­ries crude oil from the Al­berta tar sands to the Bri­tish Columbia coast, could al­le­vi­ate poverty in their com­mu­ni­ties, and own­er­ship would give them a voice in de­ci­sions about en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions.

“We’ve been shut out of the econ­omy since Canada was cre­ated,” LeBour­dais said.

He wants to buy a stake of at least 51 per cent in the project and split the spoils with the In­dige­nous groups di­rectly along the pipe­line route. By some es­ti­mates, the expanded pipe­line, used at full ca­pac­ity, could gen­er­ate more than $1 bil­lion in an­nual rev­enue for its own­ers.

In­dige­nous own­er­ship could be “a game-changer,” said Ken Coates, a pro­fes­sor of pub­lic pol­icy at the Univer­sity of Saskatchew­an.

In­dige­nous groups hold full or par­tial stakes in oil stor­age tanks and hy­dro­elec­tric dams. But a con­trol­ling stake in a project the size of Trans Moun­tain, Coates said, would be un­prece­dented.

“This is ac­tu­ally the first time in Cana­dian his­tory that they have the chance to par­tic­i­pate in a ma­jor way and in an on­go­ing way in the kind of pros­per­ity that Cana­di­ans take for granted,” he said.

Canada in re­cent years has strug­gled to com­plete ma­jor en­ergy projects such as pipe­lines, in part be­cause they tend to draw op­po­si­tion from In­dige­nous groups.

The Trans Moun­tain pipe­line ex­pan­sion is no dif­fer­ent: It has touched off an in­ter­provin­cial feud, ex­ac­er­bated the on­go­ing an­tag­o­nism be­tween the en­ergy sec­tor and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, and di­vided in­dige­nous groups.

For Trudeau, it has posed a ma­jor headache ahead of a tough fed­eral elec­tion in Oc­to­ber. The Lib­eral leader has promised to fight cli­mate change, but fos­sil fuel ex­trac­tion re­mains a pil­lar of the Cana­dian econ­omy.

Canada is the world’s sixth largest en­ergy pro­ducer and its fifth largest net ex­porter, ac­cord­ing to its nat­u­ral re­sources agency. The en­ergy in­dus­try gen­er­ated $174 bil­lion in 2018, or 11.1 per cent of nom­i­nal gross do­mes­tic prod­uct; it em­ployed 269,000 peo­ple di­rectly and sup­ported more than 550,500 in­di­rectly. (The num­bers in­clude all en­ergy sources, not just fos­sil fu­els.)

Trudeau ini­tially ap­proved the pipe­line ex­pan­sion in 2016, but a fed­eral ap­peals court soon an­nulled the de­ci­sion, say­ing the gov­ern­ment had failed to prop­erly con­sult with in­dige­nous peo­ple or con­sider the im­pact of in­creased tanker traf­fic on Pa­cific wa­ters.

With the ex­pan­sion in le­gal and po­lit­i­cal limbo, the Trudeau gov­ern­ment bought the pipe­line from Texas-based Kinder Mor­gan in 2018 for $3.4 bil­lion. It in­tends to auc­tion it back to the pri­vate sec­tor once it has been “de-risked.”

“We will di­vest the Trans Moun­tain en­ti­ties to a new owner or own­ers in a man­ner and at a time that pro­tects the pub­lic in­ter­est, in­clud­ing the gov­ern­ment’s in­vest­ment,” said Pierre-Olivier Herbert, a fi­nance min­istry spokesman.

The prime min­is­ter ap­proved the project again in June, say­ing it was cru­cial for al­le­vi­at­ing a pipe­line short­age that has slowed the flow of Al­berta crude to mar­ket. That kicked off a fresh round of protests and le­gal chal­lenges.

Even among in­dige­nous groups, the project has opened di­vi­sions – be­tween pro- and anti-pipe­line groups, but also be­tween the In­dige­nous-led coali­tions clam­or­ing for a stake in the project.

A fed­eral ap­peals court said Thurs­day it would hear six of those chal­lenges, fur­ther de­lay­ing the project.

“We have left In­di­ans and right In­di­ans,” LeBour­dais said. “It’s like pol­i­tics any­where.”

LeBour­dais wanted to buy a stake in the project long be­fore Trudeau ap­proved it in 2016.

“(Gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials) were say­ing, ‘Woah, woah, slow down.’” he said. “I said, ‘No, no, this is a race.’

“Look what hap­pened. Now we have all th­ese other pre­tenders com­ing up.”

Del­bert Wa­pass, ex­ec­u­tive chair­man and founder of the ri­val Project Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion group, said the op­por­tu­nity is “al­most too good to be true” – so much so that his group sub­mit­ted a pre­lim­i­nary pro­posal to the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, which is not yet ac­cept­ing bids, ear­lier this sum­mer.

“If you’re no longer stuck man­ag­ing poverty, now you’ve moved the nee­dle where you’re start­ing to man­age wealth,” said Wa­pass, the for­mer chief of Saskatchew­an’s Thun­der­child First Na­tion.

His group wants to buy a 51 per cent stake in the ex­ist­ing pipe­line and the ex­pan­sion project, a $5.2 bil­lion ac­qui­si­tion that would be fi­nanced by one of Canada’s big banks, with the debt backed by oil-ship­ping con­tracts.

About 20 per cent of the pro­ceeds from the pipe­line would be dis­bursed to the some 340 In­dige­nous groups in Saskatchew­an, Al­berta and Bri­tish Columbia who can join the project, he said; those groups closer to the pipe­line route would get larger cuts.

The rest would go into an In­dige­nous sov­er­eign wealth fund.

LeBour­dais opposes the Project Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion bid. He said he doesn’t think it should be open to groups in Saskatchew­an or those not di­rectly along the pipe­line’s route be­cause “they have noth­ing to risk.”

Tony Alexis, the co-chair of the Iron Coali­tion, an­other group with its sights on the pipe­line, said in­dige­nous own­er­ship could serve as a model for fu­ture projects. But he cau­tioned against “tak­ing a step too quickly.”

His sense from con­ver­sa­tions with fed­eral of­fi­cials is that they want all of the In­dige­nous-led coali­tions to come to­gether and sub­mit a sin­gle bid, so they don’t have to choose among sev­eral In­dige­nous-led pro­pos­als.

Trudeau said last month the gov­ern­ment is “very in­ter­ested in see­ing in­dige­nous part­ner­ship and in­dige­nous own­er­ship, po­ten­tially, of this pipe­line” but is pro­ceed­ing in a “mea­sured way.”

Herbert said the fi­nance min­istry has launched a “for­mal en­gage­ment process” to “ac­tively seek in­put from in­dige­nous groups on ways that they could ben­e­fit.”

“It is im­por­tant that in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties have an op­por­tu­nity for mean­ing­ful eco­nomic par­tic­i­pa­tion while we hold to our com­mit­ment of in­vest­ing in a way that ben­e­fits all Cana­di­ans, and that op­er­ates the project on a com­mer­cial ba­sis,” he said.

A fed­eral of­fi­cial who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to discuss in­ter­nal de­lib­er­a­tions con­firmed that the gov­ern­ment has re­ceived “doc­u­men­ta­tion” from Wa­pass’s group.

“Project Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion is ob­vi­ously very or­ga­nized and has built some type of ca­pac­ity,” the of­fi­cial said. “But we don’t think that be­cause they have built that ca­pac­ity, the re­sources nec­es­sary to have a very de­tailed plan or the fi­nan­cial back­ing that they should have pri­or­ity over groups that are maybe less or­ga­nized.”

The of­fi­cial said it was too soon to say when the bid­ding process would open.

Ge­orge-Wil­son said In­dige­nous own­er­ship of the pipe­line makes the project no more palat­able.

“We have looked closely at the eco­nom­ics of the project and in re­al­ity, in our view, there’s a lot of risk and un­cer­tainty fac­ing whomever owns it,” she said.

The Union of Bri­tish Columbia In­dian Chiefs ex­pressed sim­i­lar con­cerns be­fore Trudeau ap­proved the project.

“There are good rea­sons why Kinder Mor­gan chose to walk away from this project and you should care­fully con­sider them be­fore in­vest­ing your Na­tion’s money,” the chiefs wrote to Trudeau in April.

Wa­pass is un­de­terred.

“I re­spect their po­si­tion,” he said. “But let’s be hon­est. I don’t see them driv­ing Tes­las.”

A fed­eral ap­peals court said Thurs­day it would hear six chal­lenges to the pipe­line, fur­ther de­lay­ing the project. They in­clude Ge­orge-Wil­son’s; she ar­gues that the gov­ern­ment still hasn’t ad­e­quately con­sulted with in­dige­nous groups.

Coates said the Trudeau gov­ern­ment would be “naive” to think in­dige­nous own­er­ship would re­duce op­po­si­tion to the project or stave off crit­i­cism from en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists in an elec­tion year.

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