The British Columbia Union of Indian Chiefs and many coastal First Nations are lined up firmly against U.S.-owned Kinder Morgan Inc.’s proposed $7-billion diluted bitumen pipeline from Alberta to Vancouver. But elsewhere, Indigenous groups say they’re ready to do business with fossils—for a price.
“These groups see pipeline projects as a potential boon for communities eager to lessen dependence on the federal government and its control over their financial destiny,” writes CBC News. At least one group is contemplating putting forward a competing bid to KM’s controversial Trans Mountain line.
Calvin Helin, a member of the Lax Kw’alaams First Nation near Prince Rupert, B.C., is an executive with Eagle Spirit Energy. The company has big dreams of launching “an Indigenous-owned pipeline from the Alberta oilsands to the B.C. coast,” CBC reports.
“The reality is it is the only way forward,” Helin told the national broadcaster. For many remote Indigenous communities, where unemployment can rise over 90%, there are few economic alternatives, he asserted.
Many First Nations and other Indigenous groups are opposed to further fossil energy development. Last year, fifty groups from Canada and the United States forged an alliance against expansion of the tar sands/oil sands, while the Standing Rock Sioux band established a months-long blockade in an eventually unsuccessful effort to prevent the completion of the Dakota Access pipeline through its traditional territory.
But Helin scolds Indigenous voices he calls mere “Facebook warriors. They oppose everything, and they never want anything to change. But I believe there’s a middle way. Ordinary First Nations people want the same opportunities every other Canadian aspires to.”
Access to Indigenous resources and rights-of-way will not come cheap, he adds. “We’re asking, ‘What’s in it for us?’ We’re not going to accept big companies extracting the wealth and leaving us with a big environmental mess. We want real equity in these projects.”
CBC cites the examples of Alberta’s Fort McKay and Mikisew Cree, two nations whose traditional territories overlap the tar sands/oil sands region, that “recently bought part of a Suncor tank storage facility worth in excess of $350 million.”
The community closest to the tar sands/oil sands, the Fort McKay First Nation, boasts an “unemployment rate of zero, an average annual income of $120,000, and financial holdings in excess of $2 billion, thanks to its willingness to do business,” CBC adds.
Meanwhile, British Columbia’s Haisla Nation in B.C. has partnered in a proposed Kitimat LNG export terminal, and seven Saskatchewan First Nations “recently signed a $600-million deal” in exchange for their support for uranium mining in the region.
Kinder Morgan might likewise have faced less Indigenous resistance if it had placed some equity in its proposed expanded pipeline with First Nations along its route, suggests Stephen Buffalo, CEO of the Indian Resource Council of Canada and a member of the Samson Cree Nation south of Edmonton. “There’s a lot of money going through those pipes,” Buffalo observed. “First Nations can’t stand to the side and watch it go by.”
Kinder Morgan CEO Ian Anderson has said that he tried but failed to bring First Nations in as co-owners of the $7-billion (and counting) project. But while KM has “so far failed to cut a deal,” CBC notes that other fossil companies have signed more than 300 benefits agreements with Indigenous communities over the last 10 years, committing millions of dollars and creating thousands of jobs.
“A joint venture is not as exciting as a blockade, so we don’t hear about them because we all know conflict generates more media interest. But the change in recent years has been revolutionary,” observed Ken Coates of the University of Saskatchewan, who tracks Indigenous development.
The tension between Indigenous opponents of fossil development and those pursuing development by any means necessary is being played out in other jurisdictions, as well.
Reuters reports that in the U.S. west, some “tribes”—as First Nations are known there—such as the Crow, view the Trump administration’s drive to boost fossil fuel production from tribal lands under federal oversight as “an opportunity to tap more of the vast energy reserves beneath their lands for a needed economic boost.” Members of the Crow Nation stood alongside U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Vice President Mike Pence in May as they “declared an end to the U.S. government’s ‘war on coal’” in Montana.
“We have a window [to profit] now that is short,” said Kenneth Brien, director of energy development for the tribal nation whose government, Reuters notes, “is financed largely by revenues from the Absaloka coal mine, which the tribe leases to Westmoreland Resources.”