Indigenous groups are celebrating after Petronas, a Malaysian state-owned oil and gas giant, announced this week it would be scrapping its proposed Pacific Northwest LNG project along British Columbia’s North Coast.
The $36 billion (Canadian) liquefied natural gas mega-project proposed for Lelu Island in the estuary of the Skeena River—the second-largest salmon-bearing river in Canada, and the traditional territory of the Gitwilgyoots Tribe—was approved by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government last fall, but has since run up against several judicial reviews and legal challenges still pending in Canadian courts.
The sudden announcement was welcome news for members of the Gitwilgyoots Tribe who have been camped on Lelu Island in protest of the project for almost two years.
Gitwilgyoots Chief Yahaan (Donnie Wesley), who initiated the construction of a permanent camp on Lelu Island in opposition to PNW LNG, said it was a great relief to hear that Petronas was finally pulling out, and that the tribe had always known it would just be a matter of time.
“I had a great sleep,” Wesley said. “Probably the best sleep I’ve had in two years. We knew that something was coming down the tubes with the world market and everything. These guys couldn’t hold on much longer.”
Although he’s happy about the project’s cancelation, Wesley said there’s still a lot of uncertainty about what will come next for Lelu Island.
“I was kind of in shock that this was going down,” Wesley recalled. “It had been such a dirty, dragged-out affair with my own people and neighboring tribes around the North Coast, so it was a big relief. Still, we got rid of one monster, but [Lelu and Flora Bank], that’s a sensitive area we’re trying to keep clean there. And who else is going to come next? That’s the big question.”
Petronas released a statement this week announcing its decision to cancel the project and said PNW would close all local offices by the end of the summer.
“We are disappointed that the extremely challenging environment brought about by the prolonged depressed prices and shifts in the energy industry have led us to this decision,” said PNW LNG chairman Anuar Taib in the statement.
The project has created deep divisions between several First Nations along the north coast. Although hereditary leaders of the Gitwilgoots didn’t want to see the project built, Petronas signed benefit agreements with leaders from Metlakatla, Kitsumkalum, Kitselas and Gitxaala First Nations, all of whom wanted PNW LNG to proceed.
In its statement, Petronas praised the support from local First Nation groups and the communities of Prince Rupert and Port Edward, and reiterated the company’s commitment to developing its natural gas reserves in B.C.
“Petronas and its North Montney Joint Venture partners remain committed to developing their significant natural gas assets in Canada and will continue to explore all options as part of its long-term investment strategy moving forward,” Taib said.
In October 2016, Wesley launched a lawsuit in federal court to assert his rights as the hereditary title holder of Lelu Island.
“We’re still waiting on our court decision here, and it should be coming down any day now,” said Wesley. “The court will rule on the ‘who speaks for the land?’ question. The government still hasn’t made a move to take us off [Lelu Island], so it’s still up in the air. I think everyone is sitting on pins and needles.”
Environmental groups, working with indigenous communities to ensure the protection of wild salmon on the Skeena River, said they always knew PNW was doomed because peoples’ connection to salmon was too strong, the conservation group Skeena Wild said in a statement.
“When we have something in common like wild salmon, it binds all the peoples of the Skeena together to protect salmon for everyone, especially future generations,” said Chief Namoks of the Wet’suwet’en, an up-river nation that depends on Skeena River salmon, and a trustee of the Skeena Wild Conservation Trust. “For Petronas to pull out and walk away, it makes their investors realize the futility of such a disastrous proposed project. Wild salmon is the glue that holds all of us together in commonality.”
The previous British Columbia Liberal government under Christy Clark tried to sell LNG development in B.C. as a long-term path to economic sustainability, but failed to hold onto power long enough to see any of the 19 active LNG proposals come to fruition.
At a news conference, newly minted B.C. New Democratic Party (NDP) Minister of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources Michelle Mungall told reporters the company’s decision was based on failing market conditions and not the B.C. NDP’s position on LNG.
“This is about global market pricing,” Mungall said. “This isn’t about anything else other than Petronas looking at that long-term reality in the international market. The Pacific Northwest LNG project as proposed in its current state was uneconomical to move forward.”
Whatever the reasons, Wesley said, Petronas’s throwing in the towel proves to him the First Nation’s fight was never in vain, and he said they’ll to continue to protect Lelu Island.
“We had the greatest support of—ragtag people, they called us—we all came out of the bushes, and we showed some very high-profile people in the business world that everyday grassroots people have something behind them,” said Wesley. “I’m really happy for the Skeena region and the people that live off that land. We have very few places left in our world that can give us such bounty, and I don’t want to give that up for nothing.”