Thursday, February 17, Enbridge hosted a Community Technical Information Session on its proposed Northern Gateway pipeline in the Houston Community Hall. Following three previous community information sessions in Kitimat, Burns Lake, and Prince George, as well as a public forum in Terrace, the Houston forum concluded the February installment of Enbridge community engagement exercises.

The proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline would extend from Alberta to a new marine terminal in Kitimat, British Columbia, carrying up to 525,000 barrels of oil per day to port. The pipeline would cross the territories of over 50 First Nations communities, as well as 785 watercourses.

Enbridge designed their community technical information sessions to highlight their environmental and risk management strategies, as well as the local opportunities the pipeline would present. However, Enbridge’s offers often found a hostile welcome in local communities.

In their February 15th meeting in Prince George, the five First Nations belonging to the Yinka Dene Alliance soundly rejected the project. Chief Larry Nooski of Nadleh Whut’en and Chief Jackie Thomas of Saik’uz, two First Nations belonging to the alliance, spoke passionately against the project. “Enbridge knows it can’t guarantee there will be no oil spills into our rivers. Their promises and their money are no good to us,” Chief Thomas clearly stated. “We won’t trade the safety of our rivers, lands and fish that are our lifeblood.”

In January, the federally-appointed Joint Review Panel (JRP) assessing the Northern Gateway proposal determined that Enbridge had not provided adequate information of the project-specific challenges and risks to proceed to review. Particularly, the JRP found Enbridge’s proposal lacked necessary information in relation to the pipeline engineering and their emergency planning for a potential spill. In the community sessions, Enbridge touted its preparedness and lauded the economic opportunities it presented for communities.

In its Aboriginal Economics Opportunities Package, Enbridge offered First Nations communities an opportunity to own a stake in the pipeline and share in its revenue. Offering First Nations a 10% equity ownership in the $5.5 billion project, the company forecasted this would generate an estimated $280 million in net income to First Nations communities along the pipeline over the first 30 years of its operation (using aggregate numbers). The company also pledged a commitment to work with local communities, including First Nations, in providing opportunities through both procurement and employment. Finally, Enbridge committed to create a community trust to help fund local community initiatives in Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities.

However, these new details added little lustre to a proposal that many communities already decided against. In Prince George, Chief Thomas explained to company representatives, “Enbridge’s recent statements suggest to us that you hope to ignore the will of our Nations. Our Nations are becoming more and more frustrated at the lack of respect that’s shown for our laws, authority and rights. Because you claim to respect our legal rights, but push ahead despite our clearly saying no, you’ve made it more and more difficult for us to accept their word. It’s simple — if Enbridge respects our protocols and our laws, then it must abide by our decision.”

Similarly in Burns Lake on February 3, Wet’suwet’en First Nation, another member of the Yinka Dene alliance, declared Enbridge trespassers on their traditional territories. The Burns Lake District News reported that Chief Karen Ogen stated, “Despite your company’s indication to us in a letter that you intend to respect our protocols and ways, you have convened this meeting on our territory, without our consent or involvement and without proper notice. This is unacceptable to us and it shows a deep disrespect for our protocols. In December of 2010, our Nation and 60 other Indigenous Nations and communities agreed to the ‘Save the Fraser Declaration’. This declaration records and witnesses our collective decision, as Nations of the Fraser watershed from the headwaters of the Endako right down the coast, that the transportation of tar sands oil through our territories is contrary to our laws. Our laws state that we have a responsibility to ourselves, our ancestors, our descendants and to all the people living in our territories and elsewhere to defend the health of our lands and waters.”

Resistance was not limited to Yinka Dene alliance members. Madeek (Jeff Brown) from the Office of the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs also raised concerns about Enbridge’s claims to unnameable First Nations community support, while other non-Aboriginal community members raised salient questions about the potential environmental impacts at all the community sessions.

At a Terrace forum on February 1, approximately 350 community members had the opportunity to listen to Enbridge’s arguments alongside those of First Nations, supporters of economic development, and environmentalists. In contrast to the Enbridge events, the forum, co-sponsored City of Terrace, Terrace Economic Development Authority, and Terrace and District Labour Council, showcased a diversity of perspectives. Kitselas Chief Glenn Bennett was joined by the mayor of Dawson Creek, Mike Bernier, Greg Brown of the Northwest Institute of Bioregional Research, and Enbridge Director of Community Relations and Aboriginal Affairs, Morgan Yates.

Mayor Bernier touted the benefits of gas development for his community in northeast British Columbia, but elected not to speak to the specifics of the Enbridge oil pipeline which differed substantially from the natural gas wells around Dawson Creek. Chief Bennett spoke generally about the need to balance concerns about environmental impacts and possible monetary gains in determining a stance on the Enbridge pipeline. However, he remained undecided with regard to the Northern Gateway proposal.

Brown and Yates provided the strongest arguments in relation to the Enbridge pipeline, and subsequently fielded the majority of the questions. The two circled around the question of environmental impacts of the pipeline and its associated tanker traffic. While Yates indicated a spill was a remote possibility, Brown argued it was an unjustifiable risk.

Questioners from the floor repeatedly raised questions about the recent rupture of the Enbridge Line 6B pipeline in Michigan that dumped 3 million liters in the Kalamazoo River in July, 2010. On behalf of Enbridge, Yates admitted, “We were humbled by the Line 6B incident. We take responsibility for that. Our president was down there and said we would make it right, and we will be there until we do make it right.”

Community members raised questions about stories that Enbridge had asked Michigan residents receiving compensation for the Line 6B spill to sign waiver forms, releasing Enbridge of its liabilities for the accident. Yates insisted that Enbridge had always intended to take full responsibility for that spill and refuted any claims otherwise.

Last September, the Michigan House Transportation Committee chaired by Jim Oberstar investigated allegations around these waivers, often signed by community members under the duress of the devastating spill. Enbridge CEO Paul Daniels explained in a September 3 letter to Oberstar, the forms were part of a process designed to “balance the competing needs to get money into the hands of any impacted person versus encouraging false claims.” He further suggested, “Our reimbursement and claims processes were established so that no one has to sue Enbridge and wait to be paid for costs or damages caused by this incident.” Like Yates, he emphasized Enbridge intended to take full responsibility for the spill and its impacts.

Despite such official statements taking responsibility, some observers note that the demeanor of Enbridge lawyers in court suggest a desire to minimize the company’s responsibility and legal liability. “When the spill is in the media spotlight, oil companies will promise the world,” said Nikki Skuce, a ForestEthics campaigner. “As soon as costs start mounting and the spotlight begins to dim, they put the onus on stressed out, vulnerable residents to prove their liability.” Thus, a debate about responsibility for spills endures.

In response to other questions about liability for a tanker spill by Terrace community members, Yates did not debate the suggestions of project critics. “We as a pipeline operator are responsible for any liability associated with respect to the pipeline or terminal,” Yates clarified. “The liability in respect to the marine spill rests with the tanker.” Thus, while Enbridge promised to design a safe route to transport oil from Alberta to foreign markets, tanker safety was not a promise that the company would guarantee.

Greg Brown reiterated the environmental concerns that infrastructure eventually decays and humans make mistakes. He told the assembled crowd, “The risks are there, the consequences are high, B.C. could suffer greatly, and Canadians could lose an important part of our economy.” Such concerns continue to unite First Nations with other northerns, as local residents maintain a strong attachment to the place they live and do not want to risk the future of their lands and livelihoods on a proposal to export tar sands oil to China.

Tyler Shandro during a June 25 news briefing. Image: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

Tyler McCreary

Tyler McCreary is an Indigenous solidarity activist based in northern British Columbia. He is also currently working towards his PhD in geography at York University.