SHAFAQNA – As the oil and gas industry seemingly attempts to swallow up pristine land at any cost, one indigenous band in British Columbia has proven an old adage false — not everything can be quantified with a price tag. The Lax Kw’alaams Band rejected an energy giant’s plans for a liquefied gas shipping terminal that would have given each member roughly $267,000 — bucking short-sighted gain in favor of sustainability.
Malaysian energy giant Petronas and its partners sought to build the $30 billion Pacific NorthWest LNG terminal on the isolated western coast of the Canadian province as part of the larger Prince Rupert pipeline project, and offered the 3,600-member first nations group nearly $1 billion to do so. But the group demurred.
“Hopefully, the public will recognize that unanimous consensus in communities (and where unanimity is the exception) against a project where those communities are offered in excess of a billion dollars, sends an unequivocal message this is not a money issue: This is environmental and cultural,” explained the community’s mayor, Garry Reese in an announcement.
Reaching a consensus after six public meetings, the Lax Kw’alaams felt the cultural and environmental consequences of a bustling shipping terminal would be too extensive to warrant their approval, no matter the monetary gain.
In a statement explaining their decision to refuse the offer, Lelu Island was a salient concern since the LNG facility was slated to encompass virtually its entire surface area. Not only would the band lose access to procure traditional plants and medicines, but over 400 culturally modified trees would be destroyed during the facility’s construction. Such cultural losses, they believe, couldn’t possibly be monetized.
Of vital importance to the coastal community’s well-being are its marine resources, so the construction process, location of the port’s infrastructure, and volume of shipping traffic all had to be considered. By Petronas’ projections, an average of one ship a day would traverse the delicate habitat, so the Lax Kw’alaams feared even if construction were accomplished with minimal negative effects, the ongoing activity would be too disruptive to the delicate marine environment. Even modified plans still seemed to risk major damage to the breeding ground of a local salmon species on which their livelihood depends on.
The relatively tiny group had such clout, in part, from tough indigenous rights law that was strengthened last year by Canada’s Supreme Court. Groups like the Lax Kw’alaams who do not hold treaties with the government, must be consulted for projects that will transpire on their land, and plans are subject to modification to suit the group’s needs. Though the law doesn’t expressly give such groups an ultimate veto power, the negative socio-political ramifications for any company choosing to forge ahead with undesirable plans, act as an unstated stopgap.
Canada’s fossil fuel industry hasn’t been faring well of late, and though this rejection represents another defeat for the energy giants, activists see a break in the clouds.
A separate project, the Northern Gateway Pipelines, has faced strong resistance from Aboriginal groups in both British Columbia and Alberta as well as from Alberta’s new premier Rachel Notley. Notley vowed ahead of her appointment that she would withdraw provincial support for the plans. “Gateway is not the right decision. I think that there’s just too much environmental sensitivity there, and I think there’s a genuine concern by the indigenous communities,” she said, as reported in the Calgary Herald. “It’s not going to go ahead. I think most people know that.”
Notley also stated she wouldn’t be pressuring the White House to complete the last leg of the stalled Keystone XL Pipeline, which is the controversial proposal to transport Canada’s tar sands oil across the US to the Gulf Coast of Texas.
Refusal by the small and relatively obscure group of Lax Kw’alaams to be purchased out of their traditional land is a beautifully symbolic but no less powerful event. In fact, it is a reminder of Margaret Mead’s compelling exhortation,
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”