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First Nations-led alternative to Enbridge Northern Gateway faces challenges

Eagle Spirit Energy Holdings President Calvin Helin

After Kitimat rejected the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline proposal on Saturday in a non-binding vote, Vancouver's billionaire Aquilini family and an First Nations-led energy company have stepped up with an $18-billion alternative pipeline project. 

Eagle Spirit Energy Holdings and Aquilini Group said their pipeline would carry refined light crude -- not diluted bitumen -- from Alberta to Grassy Point, near Prince Rupert, rather than Kitimat. But while the Aquilini Group and Eagle Spirit say the project is backed by many of BC's 30 First Nations, critics say the the pipeline support may be less far-reaching than news reports suggest. 

"I've talked to a few elders already and we were like, 'Are you serious?'" Burns Lake Band councillor Ron Charlie said. He said he heard earlier this week that Eagle Spirit was in Burns Lake consulting with the Chief about the project, but that the community was not being kept in the loop. 

"I've never even heard of the Eagle Spirit project until Monday, and suddenly, Eagle Spirit has First Nations' support? Where's the transparency?" he asked.

Charlie said hereditary chiefs must be involved in discussions around pipeline projects, and that the community as a whole -- not just a select few -- must be consulted. Burns Lake Band Chief Wes Sam was reached by phone but declined to comment, saying a formal news release would be issued soon.

Eagle Spirit Holdings President Calvin Helin, a member of the Lax Kw'alaams First Nation, and son of a hereditary Chief, said both elected leaders and hereditary chiefs were being consulted on the proposed pipeline, but that details such as the names of the First Nations that support the project could not be revealed at this time.  

Meaningful consultations with First Nations

"We've signed non-disclosure agreements with the communities we're involved with, so we can't disclose who we signed with," Helin said.

"I will say that we do have a substantial number of them signed with us. And we won't proceed with this project unless First Nations support it." 

Helin said Eagle Spirit felt compelled to announce the project as a "viable alternative to Enbridge", but that his preference would have been to spend more time quietly working with First Nation groups. Some key differences he stressed between the Eagle Spirit pipeline and Northern Gateway was meaningful consultation with First Nations, and their active involvement in the project. 

"The company (Eagle Spirit Holdings) is largely owned by First Nations people," Helin said. "Seven of the nine directors are Aboriginal, and our financial partner is the Aquilini Group." 

He said the project would be adjusted according to the concerns of Aboriginal communities along their proposed pipeline route, which many critics have said was not the case with the Enbridge Northern Gateway proposal.

"I think what has really ticked off ordinary citizens about the way these big companies arrogantly go about their business. They say they've going to consult, they've already made all the decisions and just ask [First Nations] to give it a rubber stamp," he said. 

After around a year of listening to First Nations' concerns, Helin said it was clear that they did not want the pipeline to carry diluted bitumen, due to the ongoing spill clean-up problems demonstrated by the 2010 Kalamazoo River oil spill. He said Eagle Spirit and Aquilini Group were looking to build an upgrader in either Alberta or eastern BC to refine the oil and ship to Asian markets. 

He also said most people felt that Kitimat was not a safe place to have oil tankers, and that the company decided on Grassy Point as its proposed terminal as a result of discussions. 

Need for a social license  

As for where funding would come from for the $18 billion project, Aquilini Group president David Negrin said several local and overseas companies have already expressed interest. 

"We've had interests out of India and out of China. But there are also a lot of the companies up north in Alberta, and they obviously they want to get their fuel to the coast. We will see what fits best once First Nations decide whether or not they want to go for this," Negrin said.  

"We don't see raising the money is an issue at all," he added. "Our philosophy as a whole is that the Nations have to agree to this, first," he said. 

But finding agreement could be a challenge if some First Nations don't want any oil pipeline in the territory. Murray Smith, an elder with the Lax Kwa'laams, told the CBC on Tuesday that Eagle Spirit proponents were met with strong opposition earlier this year. 

"I remember one of the hereditary chiefs getting up and asking the question, 'What part of 'no' don't you boys understand?' We don't want the oil to come through our territory at all," Smith said.

Others speaking off the record questioned the feasibility of changing the pipeline route depending on First Nations' feedback, as well as shipping light crude to Asia. 

Helin agreed it may be impossible to get everyone to support a pipeline project.

"You know there's always disagreement in communities. Some people are just opposed to oil," he said, noting that the pipeline would provide thousands of long-term jobs in First Nation communities.

"The most important thing is to get in to meet with community members. Community members will get to vote on it and we're absolutely happy to work with that." 

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