Environmental foes of west coast oil export see little difference between bitumen, synthetic crude
By Gordon Hoekstra, Vancouver Sun
Northern B.C. First Nations adamantly opposed to the Northern Gateway pipeline reacted coolly to a First Nations-backed organization that has partnered with the Aquilini Group to propose a new oil pipeline to the B.C. coast.
While many First Nations in north-central and northwest B.C. are opposed to shipping bitumen from the Alberta oilsands, they say they have similar concerns about shipping synthetic crude, the type of upgraded oil being proposed by Eagle Spirit Energy to be shipped from the northwest coast to new markets in Asia.
Representatives of the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, the Coastal First Nations and the Yinka Dene Alliance said they see little difference between shipping bitumen and upgraded synthetic crude. Their environmental concerns over spills in rivers and the ocean remain.
The proposal unveiled Monday by Eagle Spirit Energy and the Aquilini Group, which owns the Vancouver Canucks, hinges on generating support among First Nations because it no longer proposes shipping bitumen. The group is also proposing changing the terminus to the Prince Rupert area — more directly open to the ocean — from Kitimat.
While the $18-billion oil upgrader and pipeline idea (which the Aquilini Group says it and its partners would underwrite) would need to win producer and customer backing and complete a lengthy environmental approval, it opens up the possibility of critical First Nations support.
Canada’s highest courts — including the Supreme Court of Canada — have ruled that First Nations do not have a veto on resource projects, but governments have a duty to consult and accommodate aboriginal rights and interests on unresolved land-claim areas.
Two north-central B.C. First Nations cited support Monday for the proposal, and the group said it has substantial — but undisclosed — support among other First Nations.
But proponents of the new pipeline proposal, floated as an alternative to Enbridge’s $6.5-billion Northern Gateway pipeline, say the idea will only move forward if they get buy-in from all First Nations along the route.
Yinka Dene Alliance coordinator Geraldine Thomas-Flurer said their position has always been no oil to the coast, and this First Nations-backed proposal does not change that.
“Just because it’s an aboriginal person trying to sell this, it’s not good to go,” said Fleurer-Thomas. “It would be a betrayal if we all of a sudden said it was all right.”
The Yinka Dene Alliance’s six First Nations have traditional territory in north-central B.C. that cover about 25 per cent of the Northern Gateway route.
Carrier Sekani Tribal Council chief Terry Teegee said there is still an issue of the harmful effects from a spill if bitumen is upgraded to synthetic crude. He noted the devastating effects from the Exxon Valdez spill 25 years ago were from conventional oil, not a molasses-like oil such as bitumen.
The tribal council represents eight First Nations (with overlap with the Yinka Dene), including the Stellat’en which voiced support Monday for the Eagle Spirit Energy proposal.
Lake Babine Nation chief Wilf Adam said they had not ruled out support for the new proposal but that it received a “lukewarm” reception from council. He said not shipping bitumen is a positive, but questions remain about the effects of a synthetic crude spill.
A large First Nation in north-central B.C., the Lake Babine Nation, is not a member of the Yinka Dene Alliance nor the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council.
Art Sterritt, executive director of umbrella group Coastal First Nations, said synthetic crude is still an environmental concern because technology does not exist to fully clean up marine spills. Until that happens — best estimates today peg cleanup at 10 to 15 per cent of an ocean spill — coastal First Nations can’t support oil pipeline projects, said Sterritt.
He said he has delivered that message to former federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, now finance minister, and former federal cabinet minister Jim Prentice, tapped by Enbridge to renew talks with First Nations opposed to Enbridge.
“If we are still talking about a product we can’t clean up, we don’t want it,” Sterritt said.
But Calvin Helin, the president of Eagle Spirit Energy, said switching to synthetic crude could be a game changer for native support.
He noted that bitumen has been shown to be a cleanup problem in spills such as Enbridge’s incident in 2010 in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan.
The diluent used to thin bitumen so it can be transported in pipelines evaporates, leaving behind the heavier bitumen, which — when combined with sediments — sinks, explained Helin, a member of the Lax Kw’alaams near Prince Rupert.
That makes cleanup more difficult than for synthetic crude, a lighter oil that floats, he said.
Helin acknowledged about 30 First Nations in B.C. have voiced strong opposition to Northern Gateway, but said his group has interest from a substantial number of First Nations.
He said he could not say how many because they have signed non-disclosure agreements. Enbridge claims support of 26 of 48 First Nations along its pipeline route in Alberta and B.C.
Asked whether the proposal would proceed if a single First Nation remained opposed, Helin said they will try to accommodate First Nations as much as possible. “Since we haven’t fixed a route, we have flexibility of moving it so it does not go through First Nations’ territories who don’t want it,” he said.