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Canada's First Nations vow to continue pipeline push

The fate of the Eagle Spirit Energy Corridor will either be decided in the courts or by the October general election

Canada's indigenous communities are pushing ahead with a second oil export pipeline despite the Trudeau government in late June passing a law that effectively bans crude oil exports from ports in northern British Columbia (BC). The communities' involvement in constructing infrastructure that could unlock Albertan production has resulted in an increasingly ugly spat, pitching environmentalists against advocates of indigenous rights.

The Eagle Spirit Energy Corridor (Esec) project—backed by 35 First Nations—envisions an energy corridor of oil and gas pipelines running East to West from northern Alberta to the Prince Rupert area on the northern coast of British Columbia. The project would ultimately have two 48-inch oil pipelines, each transporting 2mn bl/d of partially upgraded crude, and two large-diameter natural gas pipelines shipping 5bn ft³/d (141.5mn m³/d) each. The first phase of the project would be a crude oil pipeline at an estimated cost of C$12bn ($9.1bn), with the next three phases each expected to cost 30-40pc less. Once complete, the corridor could ship far greater volumes of western Canadian crude oil than the Trans Mountain pipeline, which will be undergoing a major capacity expansion.

However, after a transitional period Bill C-48 will prevent oil tankers entering ports at the endpoint of the proposed pipeline. The government justifies the federal ban with fears about degradation to a fragile ecosystem. Sceptics see it as a strategy by Trudeau to burnish his environmental credentials—damaged by the decision to expand the capacity of Trans Mountain—ahead of the October general election.

Energy corridor

It is not hard to see why the First Nations are continuing their fight, given the potential financial rewards and political support from the opposition. Earlier this year, the indigenous communities received significant media attention when they asked to buy part, or all, of the Trans Mountain crude pipeline from the Canadian government once (or possibly even before) its capacity expansion is complete.

The Esec Chiefs' Council in July sent a letter to the National Energy Board (Neb) asking for guidance on how to proceed with its submission of a project description, an early step in the regulatory process that may be concluded later this year.

"We are saying to the prime minister on Bill C-48 that it is a ridiculous law that is aimed at ensuring that First Nations remain in poverty," says Esec chairman Calvin Helin, noting that federal, provincial and territorial governments have a "duty to consult" before passing laws or approving projects that negatively impact indigenous communities.

C$12bn — estimated cost of first stage

He add that if the Eagle Spirit project does not obtain an exemption to the northern BC crude tanker ban, the Chiefs' Council will attempt to redirect the two crude pipelines to an Alaskan port.

The energy corridor concept has the support of five provincial and territorial premiers as well as Conservative federal opposition leader Andrew Scheer. Speaking at a July investment forum, Alberta's Conservative energy minister Sonya Savage warned that the province is planning to launch constitutional challenges against Bill C-48 as well as Bill C-69, which overhauls the environmental review process. She said that the Eagle Spirit project should strengthen the legal case against the northern BC tanker ban.

"I have no idea how the federal government believes they can enforce a tanker ban on indigenous people when they failed to consult with them about the impact the tanker ban would have on their economic future," Savage said. "There is going to be a constitutional challenge, and if that constitutional challenge involves a group of…indigenous people who want to create prosperity, all the better."

If another Liberal-led government is elected, whether a majority or minority administration, the Chiefs' Council will consider a legal challenge to the ban, especially if the new government fails to grant Esec an exemption. But an exemption would prove unnecessary if a Conservative-led government returned in October. A Scheer premiership would be likely to swiftly throw out the crude tanker ban—and probably gut the Trudeau government's natural resource regulatory reform not long thereafter.

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