Last week’s dramatic arrests of pipeline protesters in central B.C. made headlines across Canada and beyond.
At the offices of the consortium building the LNG Canada megaproject — the biggest in Canadian history — the images of heavily armed police removing Indigenous protesters were particularly jarring.
“The imagery strikes a chord in all of us,” said Susannah Pierce, the natural-gas project’s director of external relations. “No one ever wants to see that sort of thing happen.”
You can bet the same concern was felt in the offices of Premier John Horgan and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, both of whom could barely contain their glee when the $40-billion LNG Canada project was approved last year.
For Horgan and Trudeau, the LNG project is a critical economic win for a pair of politicians facing major tests with the electorate.
Trudeau and his governing Liberals face a federal election this fall against a rejuvenated Conservative Party led by Andrew Scheer.
And Horgan’s minority NDP government holds a narrow grip on power in the B.C. legislature, where the slightest political hiccup could tilt the province into a snap election.
Anything that threatens the massive LNG Canada project also poses an immediate political threat to Trudeau and Horgan.
And even though the pipeline protesters reached an uneasy truce with the RCMP last week, there are plenty of ways the fight could flare again.
The 670-kilometre pipeline being built by Coastal GasLink would ship natural gas to the planned LNG Canada processing plant and export terminal in Kitimat.
Opponents of the project point out construction has barely started.
“Right now, they’re building work camps and setting up holding areas for equipment,” said Sven Biggs, climate-change campaigner with the environmental group Stand.earth.
“Most pipeline construction happens in the summer months and that’s when there could be more protests.”
Compounding that is the vow by First Nations protesters to keep fighting the pipeline in court.
“Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have, by absolutely no means, agreed to let the Coastal GasLink pipeline tear through our traditional territories,” the protesters said in a statement.
The Wet’suwet’en First Nation was part of the historic 1997 Delagmuukw decision of the Supreme Court of Canada that confirmed the existence of Aboriginal title over land.
Now the hereditary chiefs says they’re ready to fight and win in court again.
“We paved the way with the Delgamuukw court case and the time has come for Delgamuukw 2,” the protesters said.
It’s a disturbing prospect for the LNG Canada international consortium of companies, who had earlier achieved unprecedented First Nations support for the project.
“There’s so much to be lost,” said Pierce, who points to 25 separate benefit-sharing agreements with impacted First Nations.
“This project allows First Nations to have control over their own destinies. They can actually devise their own ideas, put their own training programs into place and look toward sustainable employment.
“This is a dream many First Nations have never had. But now they have a dream they have control over. That’s a big deal.”
But the agreements were signed by the elected band councils of the Wet’suwet’en and other First Nations. Opposition to the project is being driven by the unelected hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en.
For the LNG consortium, it’s a frustrating circumstance after years of consulting with First Nations leaders, both elected and hereditary.
“We listened to their concerns,” said Pierce. “We adapted the project. We moved pieces of the project. We incorporated traditional knowledge into how we’ll build the project. It was a very close, collaborative relationship. And it’s not something that happens immediately. It took years.”
Now the LNG consortium thinks much of the fresh opposition is being driven by anti-development agitators from outside the First Nations community.
“There are groups that see an opportunity to press forward an agenda,” Pierce said. “They leverage the issue of First Nations rights and title and they use that to generate interest and campaign on other issues.”
She declined to name any groups, though others criticize environmental foundations like Tides Canada for funding First Nations protest factions as a way to fight oil and gas companies.
Despite last week’s events, though, she said LNG Canada has no plans to delay construction.
“We’re full steam ahead,” she said.
Meanwhile, as this latest pipeline battle continues, some environmental groups have a warning: You ain’t seen nothing yet.
The Trudeau government earlier bought the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline project, which would pump heavy crude from Alberta’s oilsands to Burnaby.
Construction of its expansion pipeline was halted by the courts, but Trudeau ordered a fresh round of environmental reviews and First Nations consultations in a bid to get construction going again.
“If they try to restart Trans Mountain construction this summer, it will be like a political weight around Justin Trudeau’s neck in the fall,” Biggs said. “I can’t imagine him running a leader’s tour and being constantly chased by protesters through B.C., so they might draw the consultations out until after the election.”
A good bet. But it might only delay British Columbia’s pipeline wars, which may only have just begun.
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