By Lloyd Dolha
The federal government has signed off on a framework agreement with a Northwest Territories First Nation in an effort to avoid further delays to the $7 billion Mackenzie Valley pipeline.
Deh Cho Grand Chief Herb Nowegian met with Andy Scott, minister of Indian and Northern Affairs and federal negotiators on November 5, to seek an out-of-court settlement of two lawsuits the Deh Cho have launched that challenge the review process for the pipeline.
“We’re just trying to get everything back on track,” said Nowegian. “We’ll try to bulldoze our way through this one here as quick as possible and keep the whole process moving forward.” An out-of-court settlement “would be in everybody’s interest.”
There are no details available about the framework agreement because the two parties have signed a non-disclosure clause, said a spokesperson for the minister.
The Deh Cho have filed two court applications to block the review panel’s hearings until they get greater representation on the panel.
One application was filed in early September with the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories. A second similar application was filed in the Federal Court of Canada in mid-September. The Deh Cho alleges that they have been unfairly excluded from the environmental review process.
The statement of claim asks the court to grant an injunction stopping the pipeline review until the Deh Cho are included in the review process or declare any decision reached by the panel as invalid.
In August, the federal government established the seven-member joint review panel to handle the complex environmental assessment of the mega-project. The panel includes representatives from the federal government, N.W.T. First Nations and the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Review Board.
One member of the panel is a former chief of the Pehdzeh Ki First Nation, part of the Deh Cho. But the Deh Cho does not recognize him as a formal representative.
The Deh Cho are the only major aboriginal group the N.W.T. have not signed on to the project; and are the only group without a representative on the review panel. They are also the only aboriginal group that does not have a land claim in the territory.
Greater role needed
Nowegian said they need a stronger voice because they don’t have a land claim to protect their interests over land, self-government or resources.
Forty per cent of the pipeline’s 12,000-kilometre planned route would cross land that is claimed by the Deh Cho. The 4,500 mostly Dene members of the Deh Cho cover almost the entire southwest corner of the Northwest Territories.
“We’re trying to get party status to the agreement,” he said. “The details of how we’re going to do it are still pretty premature to talk about right now.”
Norwegian, however, acknowledged that a greater role for the Deh Cho in the review process is on the table as part of the settlement.
The proposed pipeline will pump more than one billion cubic feet of natural gas per day from the field of the Mackenzie Valley Delta and has been on the drawing board since the early 1970s.
Final approval is expected to take at least two years and the pipeline is targeted to begin operations by late 2009.
And there are powerful interests standing on the sidelines.
Aboriginals are the second-largest stakeholders, with the Aboriginal Pipeline Group, owning one-third of the project.
The APG allows Aboriginal people in the Mackenzie Valley to share in the long-term, substantial dividends to be earned from ownership in the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline.
The APG was created in 2000 following meetings in Fort Liard and Fort Simpson. Thirty Aboriginal leaders from all regions of the Northwest Territories signed the resolution that created the APG and set its goals.
The APG represents the interests of the aboriginal people in the Northwest Territories in maximizing the ownership and benefits in the Mackenzie Valley natural gas pipeline.
Major energy companies have already spent millions in exploration to open up the vast gas reserves and are likely to welcome any settlement.
The Mackenzie Delta Producer’s Group, includes Imperial Oil Resources, Conoco Canada, Shell Canada and Exxon-Mobil Canada.
In October, pipeline proponents filed their application to start building the project.
Imperial Oil of Toronto, the largest stakeholder, has yet to file key applications including a lengthy environmental impact statement.
Imperial Oil has said it has no position on the on-going controversy, noting that the issue is between the federal government and the Deh Cho.
Shell Canada said it does not believe the Deh Cho’s legal action is a big problem for the project.
But other companies wanting to explore for natural gas in the territories like Devon Energy Corp. are frustrated by the pipeline’s many delays.
“It’s really taken a lot longer, even now, than we really thought,” said Devon president John Richels.