YELLOWKNIFE, Northwest Territories - Two years before a 760-mile pipeline
is to be constructed, one First Nation in the Northwest Territories has
refused to give the project its approval.
The Deh Cho First Nation (DCFN) has stalled on signing on with the
Aboriginal Pipeline Group (APG) for the $5-billion pipeline (approximately
$3.8 billion U.S.) that's scheduled to begin operating in 2010. While
initial projections by APG peg the venture as offering tens of millions of
dollars annually, based upon its one-third ownership, to Native Canadians
in the country's Far North, the Deh Cho remain skeptical.
Forty percent of the pipeline, or about 300 miles, must travel through the
Deh Cho region in the southern part of the Northwest Territories (N.W.T.)
to reach an existing corridor of lines in northern Alberta linked to
markets in southern Canada and the United States. Chief Keyna Norwegian of
the Liidlii Kue First Nation in Fort Simpson has continually expressed
concerns about financial remuneration and benefits for Native Canadians.
"How do we know at the end of the day they haven't lost money," Norwegian
said about loose financial practices that plague today's economic markets.
"The books can be fixed and with joint-venture agreements, if people don't
want to pay, they won't pay."
There is also the fear that any negotiations at this time by the Deh Cho
regarding the pipeline would diminish the on-going talks with Ottawa toward
finalizing settlement lands, a process that has also dragged on according
to the First Nation. The other three First Nation parties within APG, the
Inuvialuit, the Gwich'in and the Sahtu have all settled their claims with
Publicly, the APG has invited the Deh Cho to join and though only members
of the APG will be able to claim dividends, it's unlikely a pipeline won't
include the Deh Cho or its lands.
While the Deh Cho have stated the pipeline will not occur without their
approval, overriding their verbal claims is the federal National Energy
Board Act which permits expropriating lands that are in the public
This last step is not something Bob Reid, APG's president, would like to
see, nor would this consortium combining First Nations and private
businesses be involved in making this decision.
"That's something neither party wants as usually they'll like to resolve it
amicably," 'said Reid. "But there's always that avenue of resolution."
Should that occur, an arbitrator would be appointed to determine fair
market value. This process becomes complicated as on the surface, the Deh
Cho lands have minimal economic value based on urban proximity,
agricultural use or potential resource-extraction.
Besides the annual payments for the royalties of transporting natural gas,
individual First Nations will also negotiate their own deals with the
private oil companies under the term of "access and benefits." Former
N.W.T. Premier Jim Antoine is now a consultant with APG and he explained
that traditionally pipeline companies pay a one-shot deal for the number of
acres they require by applying a price to the land. Given the project's
importance, Antoine hinted there might be room to negotiate annual payments
based on the volume of gas that flows through.
Regardless of any money, there are always concerns about what construction
will do to the land. Norwegian has doubts about how the environment will
remain pristine and to what extent care will be taken to preserve the
forests and lakes of the DCFN.
"Almost on a daily basis you hear of exploding pipelines out there. There
are accidents waiting to happen," said Norwegian.
Even if her fears are exaggerated, her points about disruptions to the land
are valid. Norwegian is concerned about how the construction of a pipeline
would disrupt the animals, water and vegetation, all vital components used
in the traditional way of life still practiced by a large number of rural
Dene. (The Dene are the First Nations of the N.W.T., about half of the
territory's 42,000 population.)
Reid acknowledges that for a short period there would be normal disruptions
as would occur on other construction sites. However he assures the 30-inch
pipeline would be unobtrusive and completely underground as natural gas is
the most environmentally sensitive of the fossil fuels.
Even before construction would begin, there are 13 different Native,
government and environmental regulating bodies that will assess the
environmental impact of a pipeline during a 16-month period. There will
also be an independent seven-person Joint Review Panel comprised from
Aboriginal, federal and territorial levels of government.
The Deh Cho have argued they should have two seats on this panel, the same
as the Inuvialuit. Further, the one Deh Cho member who is sitting on this
board is not recognized by the DCFN. While all the members have extensive
backgrounds among Aboriginal, environmental and/or oil and gas affairs,
just three of the seven live permanently in the N.W.T.
Citing they have "exhausted all other avenues," the Deh Cho filed a
Statement of Claim in the Supreme Court of the N.W.T on Sept. 2. This
injunction seeks to stop the pipeline review until the Deh Cho are
proportionately included in the review board or, alternatively, invalidate
any decision made by the panel.