On June 17, the Canadian federal government announced its approval of a controversial pipeline project that would transport crude oil extracted from tar sands in Alberta to Kitimat, a port on the British Columbia coast. But a new court decision strengthening First Nation rights to their traditional lands could be a major setback for the Northern Gateway pipeline, which is already facing stiff resistance on multiple fronts.
“The court has clearly sent a message that the Crown must take Aboriginal title seriously and reconcile with First Nations honorably.”
Environmentalists, British Columbia residents and indigenous First Nations leaders have voiced strong opposition to Canadian energy giant Enbridge, Inc.’s plan for the $7 billion, 731-mile twin pipeline. The pipeline’s capacity would be more than 500,000 barrels a day of bitumen—a tar-like substance that gets refined into oil—with most of it headed overseas to Asian markets.
Proponents say the pipeline will create jobs and add an estimated $300 billion to Canada’s gross domestic product over 30 years. But opponents cite a range of concerns, including native land rights, the project’s contribution to climate change, and potential oil spills. If built, the pipeline would cross roughly 21 million acres of environmentally sensitive temperate rainforest along the British Columbia coast.
“Once you load this heavy crude onto tankers you’re going to be going through a very pristine part of British Columbia, which is the Great Bear Rainforest,” explained Karen Tam Wu of ForestEthics, an environmental research and advocacy group based in Vancouver. “This is an area where there’s been an increase in whale populations over the last decade. This is an area where local communities still depend on for their livelihoods in terms of being able to harvest traditional seafood. So you’re putting cultures at risk as well.”
First Nations, whose lands are threatened by the proposed pipeline, have been fighting the project and have pledged to challenge the Canadian government in court.
“This project, and the federal process to approve it, violated our rights and our laws. We are uniting to defend our lands and waters of our respective territories,” First Nations leaders said in a joint statement in response to the federal government’s approval.
Besides legal challenges over Aboriginal land, Enbridge faces a long list of prerequisites it must meet before building the pipeline.
It seems the First Nations may have the courts on their side. In a groundbreaking decision, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on June 26 to grant Aboriginal title to the Tsilhqot’in Nation for approximately 200,000 hectares of land in the central interior of British Columbia. Additionally, the court stated that in cases where title has yet to be established, “the Crown is required to consult in good faith with any Aboriginal groups asserting title to the land about proposed uses of the land.”
That requirement could have far-reaching effects. “This decision is a game changer,” British Columbia Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould stated in a press release. “The court has clearly sent a message that the Crown must take Aboriginal title seriously and reconcile with First Nations honorably.”
Besides legal challenges over Aboriginal land, Enbridge faces a long list of prerequisites it must meet before building the pipeline. Liability insurance and having an emergency response plan in case of a spill are among the 209 conditions imposed by the federal government.
Yet another ground for opposition is the project’s potential climate impacts. According to an analysis by the Pembina Institute, a Canadian environmental think tank, carbon pollution from Northern Gateway’s tar sands extraction would be the equivalent to adding more than 3 million cars to Canada’s roads.
“There are so many points of entry in the opposition, from people concerned about climate impacts to locals who don’t want to see their coastlines tarnished,” said Nikki Skuce of ForestEthics. “With such a strong wall of opposition in British Columbia, this pipeline will never be built.”
Dana Drugmand is a freelance journalist specializing in climate change, clean energy, and citizen activism. She holds a Master's degree in Environmental Law & Policy with a certificate in Climate Law from Vermont Law School.