As Enbridge Northern Gateway continues to struggle to gain social licence in the Northwest, Eagle Spirit Energy president and CEO Calvin Helin has proposed an alternate oil pipeline to carry crude to the coast.
The project would see a refinery built to turn bitumen into synthetic crude oil, with Helin saying First Nations have “unequivocally told us they don’t want bitumen being shipped either through the provincial waters”. Helin declined to name locations being considered for a terminus port, only saying feedback was it shouldn’t be in Kitimat, but a meeting in Lax Kw’alaams last October pointed to Eagle Spirit pursuing a refinery at Grassy Point.
While discussions are very preliminary, Helin said the project hinges entirely on First Nations.
“This is going to be a First Nations-led initiative,” he said.
“We’re going to do whatever it takes, but if First Nations aren’t for this then we won’t do it,” he said.
Helin said the company gathered feedback from First Nations communities for more than a year to learn how to earn a social licence for its proposal, announcing April 14 it had signed a “substantial number” of non-disclosure agreements with northern bands to explore alternate solutions to the Northern Gateway project. Eagle Spirit Energy and the Aquilini Group, partners in the project, claim the idea is backed by many First Nations, even some opposed to Northern Gateway.
If First Nations approve the idea, the Aquilini Group has committed to underwrite the estimated $18 billion cost of the pipeline.
However, Helin noted not all bands that signed non-disclosure agreements are in favour of the idea, but are merely willing to discuss it.
The claim of significant support has been called into question by Coastal First Nations executive director Art Sterritt.
“All Eagle Spirit has been able to demonstrate is that they have the support of two First Nations,” he said, adding the alliance of First Nations on B.C.’s North and Central Coast and Haida Gwaii does not approve the project any more than it does Northern Gateway.
“For Eagle Spirit to think somehow light crude is going to be more acceptable to Coastal First Nations is erroneous … there is no way the Coastal First Nations would ever think a project that would get synthetic crude to the coast would be anymore acceptable than bitumen.”
Sterritt said a spill in this area would destroy a longtime source of food for First Nations because the industry “doesn’t know how to clean up synthetic crude anymore than they do bitumen”. He also said the site of the Alaskan Exxon Valdez spill has an intertidal zone much smaller than Prince Rupert and surrounding area, and most of the oil from the 1989 incident hasn’t been recovered.
“While I respect that Calvin Helin thinks he’s coming up with a solution that people might find more environmentally acceptable, the reality is it’s just as bad,” he said.
Lax Kw’alaams Mayor Garry Reece and Metlakatla Chief Harold Leighton did not immediately return requests for comment by the Northern View. Both Tsimshian Nations have previously opposed oil pipelines and tankers within their traditional territories.