By Lloyd Dolha
Hopes of avoiding further delays in the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline project are fading fast as it looks almost certain that lawsuits concerning aboriginal involvement in the review of the multi-billion dollar project will go to trial.
The Deh Cho First Nations of the Northwest Territories met with the federal government on February 8 to discuss when the lawsuits will be ready to go to trial.
Last September, the Deh Cho filed the two lawsuits looking for a greater role in the environmental assessment of the pipeline.
Negotiators for the Deh Cho and the federal government have been trying to reach an out-of-court settlement to accommodate Deh Cho concerns.
Those talks “may have hit bottom,” said Deh Cho Grand Chief Herb Norwegian. Norwegian has instructed his lawyers to step up the pace of legal action. Last month, when it appeared a settlement was close, legal counsel for the Deh Cho requested an adjournment of a court hearing on the lawsuits.
But federal negotiators have rejected a Deh Cho demand for their own land and water
board to monitor the project in their last meeting.
The two parties have been negotiating under a framework agreement signed in early November last year. A non-disclosure clause has left other parties in the dark of the specifics.
The dispute stems from last August’s appointment of a seven-member joint review panel to oversee the complex environmental assessment of the mega-project.
The panel includes representatives of the federal government, NWT First Nations and the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Review Board.
The Deh Cho say they need greater representation on the review panel because their First Nations are the only group in the territories whose interests in lands and resources are not protected by a comprehensive land claim.
In applications filed in the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories and the Federal Court of Canada, the Deh Cho allege that they have been unfairly excluded from the review panel process and the two applications ask the courts to block its hearings until their concerns are addressed.
The 4,500 mostly Dene members of the Deh Cho cover virtually all the southwest corner of the territories. Fully 40 per cent of the proposed12,000-kilometre route of the pipeline would run through Deh Cho traditional territory.
The Deh Cho is also the only aboriginal group who have not signed onto the pipeline project through the Aboriginal Pipeline Group.
The APG represents a one-third ownership of the pipeline to the Acho Dene, the Gwich’in, the Sahtu and the Inuvaluit. These groups have already negotiated impact/benefit agreements, are assured long-tern training and jobs, as well as a host of other benefits.
APG has already borrowed $80 million to participate in the project definition phase of the pipeline and require $1 billion in financing for its one-third share of the pipeline.
Major oil companies represented in the Mackenzie Delta Producer’s Group have already spent hundreds of millions in preliminary engineering and environmental studies, and will be spending more on the preparation of applications necessary for the pipeline.
Final approval was expected to take at least two years with the pipeline in full production by 2009, but the Deh Cho have extended that timeline considerably.
If the dispute isn’t settled in the near future, the Producers Group will have to re-evaluate the benefits and costs of the project.