First Nations in western Canada have a message for energy giant Enbridge Inc.: Keep oil sands off our lands and waters.
They've been taking the warning to the streets in recent weeks, demonstrating against Enbridge's plan to pipe crude 730 miles from the Alberta oil sands to a proposed supertanker terminal in the British Columbia port town of Kitimat.
The Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines Project would ship 525,000 barrels of bitumen per day across territories claimed by 50 First Nations. Much of it would head overseas to feed fuel-hungry China and other Asian markets.
Last week, about 400 protesters gathered in Prince George, the largest city in northern B.C. Others — some dressed as oil spill clean-up workers — rallied in Kitimat weeks prior.
The stepped-up pressure comes as Calgary-based Enbridge finds itself in the hot seat after a spate of ruptured pipelines.
The area's Native Canadians are angry because the $5.5 billion pair of pipelines follows a route that would cross 1,000 streams, rivers and some important salmon-breeding streams.
"Eventually pipelines breach, and potentially they could be breaking in our territories and damaging our watersheds," Terry Teegee, vice tribal chief of the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, told SolveClimate News.
Teegee and others say it's another oil disaster waiting to happen.
"There's going to be an accident. It's just a matter of time," said Gerald Amos, president of the Coastal First Nations Organization and counselor with the Kitamaat Village Council, which represents the Haisla Nation of B.C.
Five weeks ago, an Enbridge oil sands line busted in Kalamazoo Mich., releasing thousands of gallons of crude into state waterways. Last week, the firm found a leak in a pipeline outside of Chicago. On Monday, a third line near Buffalo was shut down after it was damaged during maintenance work.
First Nations are latching on to the accidents as an opportunity to gain backing for their opposition.
"We're not dealing with rocket science here. The evidence is all around us," Amos told SolveClimate News. "Exxon, the Gulf of Mexico, Kalamazoo. They're all telling us [that] this is what's in store ... The risks are very real."
Enbridge spokesman Alan Roth told SolveClimate News that its safety record is better than most in the industry.
"Pipeline spills are rare," Roth said. "Obviously, there have been some in the news lately and coincidently very close together in time. But the truth is that the failure rate for our pipelines is actually better than the industry average."
Safety will be a big consideration, he added: "Spill preventions, pipeline safety, the marine safety program for Northern Gateway ... are all absolute key priorities."
The firm claims the economic benefits will outweigh any environmental costs.
The project will create 62,700 "person-years of employment" over the construction phase and 1,150 long-term jobs in maintenance and operations of the pipelines and marine terminal, the company states.
According to an analysis by the Pembina Institute, the plan would produce only 215 long-term jobs and would spew 22.3 megatons of climate-changing emissions each year — the equivalent of adding 5.4 million cars on the road.
Pressure Mounts Against Dirty Pipelines
The demonstrations by First Nations are part of a wave of action to stop pipelines across North America that would enable more oil sands to flow.
An estimated 175 billion barrels of reserves are locked underground in western Canada — second only to Saudi Arabia's 260 billion. The sticky bitumen must be pumped out, separated and boiled off in a process that leaves behind lakes of toxic liquid waste and more global warming pollution than traditional oil production.
The industry claims bitumen emits 15 percent more emissions than conventional crude. Environmental groups say the figure is closer 300 percent. Recently, the U.S. EPA wrote that crude from tar sands produces 82 percent more emissions on a well-to-wheels basis.
In the U.S., approval of the 2,000-mile Keystone XL pipeline by TransCanada — which would deliver 900,000 barrels a day and double U.S. consumption of the fuel — is pending before the U.S. State Department.
The line would pass over one of the nation's largest underground aquifers. In the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill — and amid elevated worries about global warming — the once-certain project is facing political resistance.
The U.S. remains Alberta's biggest customer by far, importing 60 percent of oil sands production, or around 800,000 barrels a day.
But with Northern Gateway, Enbridge is entering a new level of ambition in seeking to quench China's skyrocketing energy thirst. China uses about eight million barrels of oil a day and growing; it relies on imports for about half that. The pipeline would also create an economic safety valve should U.S. markets sour on the dirtier fuel.
Enbridge submitted its Northern Gateway application to the National Energy Board this spring for approval. Already ten years in the works, Roth said he expects a final decision within two years.
The project, he suggests, has deep-pocketed supporters.
"The regulatory application and review process is funded by a number of project funding partners ... The project is well supported by industry," he said.
First Nations: Not Without Our Consent
The First Nations say Northern Gateway will not happen without their consent.
"We declare that oil tankers carrying crude oil from the Alberta Tar Sands will not be allowed to transit our lands and waters," the Coastal First Nations said in a formal declaration in March.
The tribes sought a "meaningful" voice at the table in the regulatory and environmental review of the project — a goal they now claim is unlikely.
A "joint review panel" was established last December by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and the National Energy Board (NEB) to consider the project. It has three members, two from Albertans and one Native Canadian from Ontario.
The First Nations were furious that the panel lacked representation of local native groups — a decision that Amos said flies in the face of Canadian law.
"We think that the current joint review process is lacking with respect to the laws as they exist in this country regarding free prior and informed consent of First Nations people," he said.
Roth said First Nations "will have a voice within the regulatory process of course — and an important voice — but the ultimate arbiter of the project ... is the joint review panel."
In announcing the panel, NEB said: "Aboriginal groups are encouraged to bring their views on the Northern Gateway Pipeline Project forward."
Amos brushed off such pledges as "lip service."
"We're going to continue to hammer away," Amos said. "But I don't have any hope that the government structure is going to change in the time that they have allocated to review this project."
Teegee said his tribal council will not participate in the review because it sidelines Aboriginal rights and does not look at the cumulative impacts of the project.
Both said First Nations may resort to legal action.
(Image: Friends of Wild Salmon)