This $16B Alberta-B.C. oil pipeline has First Nations backing — but it may still never get built
The project’s major obstacle is the federal government, specifically the tanker moratorium for B.C.’s northern coast announced by the Prime Minister last November
Published on: November 23, 2017 | Last Updated: November 23, 2017 5:57 AM CST
As proposed Canadian crude oil export pipelines struggle to get built, one project is gaining momentum — the First Nations-led, $16 billion Eagle Spirit Energy Holding Ltd. pipeline and energy corridor between Alberta and the northern British Columbia Coast.
The project is twice the size of the Northern Gateway project rejected by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and has secured support from First Nations from Bruderheim, Alta., through Northern B.C., to Grassy Point, B.C.
Major Canadian oil producers including Suncor Energy Inc., Cenovus Energy Inc. and Meg Energy Corp. also want it to go ahead, while investment broker AltaCorp Capital Inc. has been lined up to organize financing. The pipeline’s right of way would be on an energy corridor that would be pre-approved by First Nations to also house gas pipelines, hydro lines and fiber optic cable. The Aquilini Group of Vancouver is also a backer.
“It’s an exciting time here,” chairman and president Calvin Helin said in an interview. “We developed a model, particularly for the ocean, that has a higher environmental standard than the federal government is proposing anywhere else in Canada.”
The project’s major obstacle, however, is the federal government, specifically the tanker moratorium for British Columbia’s northern coast announced by the Prime Minister last November, at the same time as he cancelled Northern Gateway. The ban, now before Parliament, has the support of environmentalists who want to keep oil tankers away from the West Coast, particularly the Great Bear Rainforest ‘fiction’ they helped create.
Helin, a lawyer, said the forest covers the traditional lands of the Lax Kw’alaams of which he is a member, was invented by green activists who want it to be off limits to development and without Indigenous input.
He said First Nations would fight the ban in court if implemented because they weren’t properly consulted and because it would kill Eagle Spirit and other development options they may want to pursue.
The Prime Minister may have to re-think the moratorium if Eagle Spirit gains significant Indigenous support, said Ken Coates, Canada research chair at the University of Saskatchewan’s School of Public Policy, and senior fellow in Aboriginal issues at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.
The project could turn out to be “the only one that has a significant chance of succeeding” because of its Indigenous leadership, he said.
If First Nations want to explore it, “it’s hard for the government to say we are not going to talk to you about it, because we are making decisions on your behalf,” Coates said. “That is old style. That is the way we used to do it.”
The project is an example of Iindigenous support for natural resource projects that meet their environmental standards and offer them revenue opportunities.
Oilsands giant Suncor, the Fort McKay First Nation and the Mikisew Cree First Nation, both in Alberta, announced Wednesday the completion of the acquisition of a 49 per cent partnership in Suncor’s East Tank Farm Development for $503 million. The two First Nations independently financed the acquisition through $545 million, 4.136 per cent senior secured notes due December 31, 2041. The offering was structured and marketed by RBC Capital Markets.
“The deal represents the largest business investment to date by a First Nation entity in Canada, and not only demonstrates the great potential for partnerships between First Nations and industry but serves as a model for how First Nations can achieve greater self-determination through financial independence,” said Fort McKay chief Jim Boucher.
The Eagle Spirit oil pipeline would be about the same size as the Energy East project cancelled last month by TransCanada Corp., that proposed to transport one million barrels a day from Alberta to the East Coast.
It would have many advantages compared to other pipeline projects, but needs to resolve the tanker ban before applying for a permit, Helin said.
Its oil would be loaded on large tankers and head to markets in Asia three days faster than from Vancouver, the end point of Kinder Morgan Canada Inc.’s Trans Mountain pipeline, whose proposed expansion is struggling with opposition by environmentalists, municipalities and some First Nations. Its port would be located near the open ocean, making navigation safer.
Regulatory approvals for Eagle Spirit could also come faster, cutting costs for proponents, since the project has agreements in principle with all impacted First Nations and is guided by a Chief’s Council, Helin said.
The project would be less vulnerable to attacks by environmentalists that are giving other pipeline proposals a rough ride because First Nations that support it have rights to manage their lands.
In contrast to Eagle Spirit’s previously announced plans, which involved building a pipeline and an upgrader, the new version involves a pipeline that would carry bitumen until the upgraded product is available as well as the pre-approved energy corridor.
Bill C-48 would send the message that it is okay to have oil tanker traffic when it supports refinery jobs in Montreal, but not when it supports jobs in Alberta and Saskatchewan
Eagle Spirit first emerged about five years ago as an alternative to Northern Gateway, which was opposed by First Nations that felt environmental protection and benefits were insufficient. It’s modeled after the Alyeska pipeline between Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay and Valdez, built and operated with involvement from the state’s Indigenous people.
Its proposed energy corridor “would be environmentally the best thing to do for Canada,” Helin said. “It could concentrate all of activities, you can divide the areas of the pipeline into zones, so First Nations in different areas can be the people who maintain and look after the environment for those areas. It could provide a host of ongoing benefits to First Nations that isn’t dependent on government.”
While also intended to protect the environment from oil spills, Bill C-48: Oil Tanker Moratorium Act, is controversial.
In feedback to the House of Commons committee that is reviewing it, the Canada West Foundation said there are no such restrictions on tankers anywhere else in Canada and implementing Bill C-48 would send the message that it is okay to have oil tanker traffic when it supports refinery jobs in Montreal, Sarnia, Quebec City and Saint John, but not when it supports jobs in Alberta and Saskatchewan tied to the export of western Canadian oil to Asia.
The Lax Kw’Alaams said the proposed law “is an infringement of Indigenous land. It cuts our community off at the knees from any economic development related to the export of oil.”
The Gitwangak and Gitsegukla tribes, whose territories are located around the Skeena River in Northwestern B.C., said they have not been consulted and “are concerned that the loud voices of foreign environmental activists are dictating what activities we can undertake in our own traditional territory in an effort to deprive us of our constitutionally protected Aboriginal rights.”
For its part, West Coast Environmental Law, a law firm that champions green initiatives, said the bill has strong support among those “that have called for B.C.’s unique north coast to be permanently protected from oil tankers,” including Coastal First Nations and the six First Nations in the Yinka Dene Alliance. It says the ban should be strengthened so that it would be harder to allow exemptions.
Helin said the tanker ban should at least come with a compromise: a shipping corridor near the Alaska border so that pro-development First Nations like Lax Kw’Alaams can ship what they want in and out, and a tanker ban for those First Nations further south and for environmentalists that want the ban to stand. The shipping corridor wouldn’t be that far from the tankers that have been shipping Alaskan oil down the B.C. coast for decades.