(Warning: This is longer than most articles that appear on media websites.)
There may not be a peaceful conclusion to the ongoing dispute over the Coastal GasLink pipeline in British Columbia.
That's because Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs didn’t reach agreement with the B.C. government in their 11th-hour talks to de-escalate the conflict over the $6.6-billion megaproject.
“While we were not successful in finding a resolution to the current situation, we continue to remain open to dialogue with the Wet’suwet’en leadership on this issue,” Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister Scott Fraser said in a February 4 statement. “We hope that the paramount need for safety stays the top priority for all parties.”
The hereditary chiefs are from five Wet’suwet’en Nation clans: Gilseyhu, Laksilyu, Tsayu, Laksamshu, and Gitdumden.
According to Chief Smogelgem, a.k.a. Warner Naziel, of the Laksamshu, he and other hereditary chiefs are “sick and tired” of the provincial and federal governments preferring to talk to people who will say yes to them rather than to the group of chiefs who won a landmark victory in the Supreme Court of Canada in 1997.
The Delgamuukw ruling established the existence of Aboriginal title over portions of 58,000 square kilometres in north-central B.C.
“We have to stand up for our traditional territories,” Chief Smogelgem says in a hereditary chiefs’ video posted on YouTube. (See below.) “We have to make sure that we are the ones that make decisions on them. If we say no to any kind of development because it would impede on our ability to take care of our future generations, then that’s going to be the answer.”
His perspectives are echoed by others in the video, including Chief Kloum Khun, also of the Laksamshu. He says that the power of hereditary chiefs comes not via elections but through the consensus of clan members.
“The position takes us into the feast hall speaking with authority with all of the clan members and your clan in mind, and a total trust that we’re acting on the best behalf of our clan and our nation,” he says.
Critic questions pipeline's economic viability
The 670-kilometre Coastal GasLink pipeline is part of the largest private-sector infrastructure project in Canadian history, according to the federal government—a $40-billion expenditure that will lead to billions of dollars in direct government revenues and 10,000 jobs at the height of construction. It includes the large LNG Canada liquefied-natural-gas plant in Kitimat along with a terminal to export up to 26 million tons of LNG per year.
By October 2018, when the project received the green light from Royal Dutch Shell and its corporate partners, LNG prices had surged in Asia, reaching US$11.40 per million British thermal units. Some analysts anticipated that they would rise even higher. But since then, LNG prices in Asia have plunged to a record low of US$3.51 per million BTUs on northeast Asia’s benchmark Japan Korea Marker.
The decline is being blamed on the coronavirus outbreak in China and increasing competition from renewable sources of power.
Wet’suwet’en traditionalists, like Karla Tait, director of clinical healing at the Unist’ot’en Healing Center, thinks that Royal Dutch Shell and the other LNG Canada investors should give up on the project.
“It’s not economically viable,” Tait told the Straight by phone from the facility along the pipeline route. “I can say that from the cost [of the project] and the price of LNG in the market.”
Moreover, she emphasized that the hereditary chiefs are “steadfast” in their opposition.
“We’ve never approved this project, because it’s environmentally unsound,” Tait said. “Our Wet’suwet’en laws would never support a project as destructive as this. We’re just in too delicate a position at the headwaters of the Wedzin’kwa [Bulkley and Morice rivers]. Our whole society is structured around our salmon runs and access to our territories. So it’s at odds with our values.”
She described the current impasse between the Wet'suwet'en Nation and the federal and provincial governments as a "watershed moment" as Indigenous people pursue decolonization.
Canada produces high-cost fossil fuels
Tait is not alone in seeing the LNG Canada plant as an economic loser.
Carbon Tracker's head of oil, gas, and mining, Andrew Grant, wrote a September 2019 report analyzing capital investments in fossil-fuel projects called Breaking the Habit: Why none of the large oil companies are “Paris-aligned”, and what they need to do to get there.
Grant told the Straight by phone from his office in London, England, that there are about US$6.5 trillion in projects on the books over the next 10 years.
Collectively, he estimated, they would contribute to a global average temperature increase of 2.7 ° C since the start of the Industrial Revolution.
The 2015 Paris Agreement aims to keep the global average temperature increase over that time to below 2 ° C.
Under an ideal scenario, the average temperature rise would be kept below 1.5 ° C to prevent feedback loops from kicking in—such as melting of Arctic ice, large escapes of methane from the Arctic, and large-scale release of carbon dioxide from oceans, which could cause runaway global warming.
Grant said that something has to give—and it could very well be B.C.’s marquee LNG plant and related infrastructure.
He explained that if the world is to contain the average global temperature increase to between 1.6 ° C and 1.8 ° C, the fossil-fuel sector will have to cut its capital investments by about US$2 trillion.
“Even if you assume that as a benchmark—and then add a bit of a margin of error—we find that the LNG Canada project still doesn’t sort of make economic sense in a low-carbon world,” Grant said. “In other words, the supply costs are sufficiently high that even with a bit of increased demand for LNG going forward, it’s outcompeted by other projects that are either in the market or may be built.”
Low prices threaten viability of LNG
In October 2018, Royal Dutch Shell CEO Ben van Beurden said in a news release that growing demand for LNG in Asia, and the company’s “significant integration advantages”, meant that LNG Canada would deliver a return in the neighbourhood of 13 percent.
This month, however, van Beurden told CNBC’s Squawk Box Europe program that concerns about the coronavirus are not helping global energy markets.
“It is a very concerning development; a lot of people will be anxious,” the Royal Dutch Shell CEO said, “and, of course, we are monitoring very closely what is happening.”
In 2016, the Brattle Group published a report saying that suppliers of North American–produced LNG required a price in the range of US$10 to US$11 per million BTUs to be profitable. The current price isn’t close to that.
“There is a real possibility of a significant shift towards more renewable power generation in some of the key Asian markets targeted by the LNG industry,” the Brattle Group stated. “While the current shares of wind, solar, and gas in China are each less than 5% of China’s total electricity generation, all three sources of electricity generation are projected to increase substantially over the next 25 years as the share of coal generation as a percentage of total generation is projected to decline significantly from around 75% today to roughly 50% by 2040.”
U.S. author Jeremy Rifkin, an adviser to the European Union and Chinese energy executives, goes even further in his new book, The Green New Deal: Why the Fossil Fuel Civilization Will Collapse by 2028, and the Bold Economic Plan to Save Life on Earth. He bluntly writes that declining prices of wind and solar power—along with rapid adoption of these technologies by the EU and China—have obliterated the “commercial case for the continued introduction of large-scale natural gas projects”.
Yet the B.C. government has offered LNG Canada $6 billion in incentives, and the Trudeau government has offered $275 million in subsidies. Canada is the fourth-largest producer of crude oil and the fifth-largest producer of natural gas in the world. So if Rifkin is right, it could have tremendous economic ramifications for this country.
The value of the Canadian dollar has traditionally moved with the international price of oil.
If fossil-fuel prices bottom out for years, it could drive down the dollar, create problems for the Canada Pension Plan, and drive up food prices because so much of what Canadians eat is imported.
Huge changes in energy industry
The rapid take-up of renewable energy worldwide prompted the founder of Victoria-based Ecopath Planning, Eric Doherty, to offer an observation that's rarely stated in the Canadian media.
He suggested that the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs are actually helping Canada by opposing the Coastal GasLink pipeline.
“What they’re doing could really be saving us in a really big way from going down a dead end with the very highest cost fossil-fuel energy,” Doherty told the Straight by phone.
He said there’s a common misconception that fossil fuels are a path to easy riches. “But things have changed,” he stated. “What we’re now looking at is really the bottom of the barrel—particularly on both the tarsands and LNG in B.C. We’re very, very high-cost producers in a time when only the lowest-cost producers will likely survive.”
Doherty cited several reasons for dramatic change in energy markets over the past decade, including high-voltage undersea cables promoting more grid integration and greater connectivity to low-cost renewable hydropower and solar power.
There have also been big advances in short-term battery storage for renewable power, as well as greater reliance on hydroelectric dams for long-term power storage. He added that air-sourced heat pumps can lead to significant reductions in natural-gas use in the building sector.
“All we need is a plateau in consumption to bankrupt these [LNG] projects,” Doherty said.
Canada could save billions through renewables
One of the world’s more imaginative energy and environmental researchers is Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University.
He has developed road maps for 143 countries, including Canada, to transition to 100-percent-clean, renewable energy for all purposes.
In a phone interview with the Straight, Jacobson said the climate crisis makes it “socially irresponsible” for Canadian federal and provincial governments to promote fossil-fuel projects.
“All this is doing is contributing to increasing emissions,” he said. “It’s making it much more difficult for the whole world to fight the rapid increase in climate damage that’s occurring and will occur into the future. Other countries don’t need this energy either, so it’s discouraging them from actually transitioning their own energy infrastructure.”
He added that there’s a real risk of “stranded assets” in the fossil-fuel sector—i.e., infrastructure not used because renewable options are cheaper.
“There are 61 countries in the world that have committed to 100-percent-renewable electricity,” Jacobson said. “That means in terms of electric power, fossil-fuel use has to go down to zero.”
They have different timetables, with the European Union leading the way. He mentioned that 14 states in his country have laws calling for 100-percent-renewable electricity by between 2030 and 2050. And he said that this transition can save consumers, governments, and businesses enormous amounts of money.
His plan for Canada indicates that there would be a 68-percent reduction in energy costs if the country relied entirely on renewable energy.
Instead of consumers, businesses, governments, and organizations spending $292 billion per year on energy for electricity, home heating, transportation, and industrial and other uses, the annual price would drop to $93 billion per year.
“But on top of that, you eliminate about 3,800 air-pollution deaths per year,” Jacobson added. “That saves another $38 billion a year—and it’s also hundreds of thousands of illnesses that you’ve saved. Then the climate-change reduction by 2050 is another $490 billion per year.”
According to Jacobson, it would only require 0.1 percent of the country’s landmass to do this. “It’s to everybody’s benefit to get off of the fossil fuels,” he said.
Wet'suwet'en say "man camps" threaten their rights
Back on Wet’suwet’en traditional territory, Unist’ot’en spokesperson Freda Huson insists that she’s not a protester.
She told the Straight by phone that she’s following Wet’suwet’en law by occupying her land. She and Chief Smogelgem were named as defendants when Coastal GasLink Pipeline Ltd. obtained a B.C. Supreme Court injunction.
“I believe the judicial system is favouring industry because the government makes up all the legislation,” Huson said. “So they’re using injunctions now to get rid of us.”
Construction on the Unist’ot’en Healing Center began in 2015 on the premise that clients can only truly heal by forging a deep connection to the land and embracing traditional uses. Even though it has been funded by the First Nations Health Authority, Wet'suwet'en people say its work is being undermined by the pipeline project.
“All of Talbits Kwah territory is required for hunting, trapping, gathering medicines, berry picking, and visiting ceremonial sites,” the website states. “Man camps and pipelines threaten all of those rights.”
For Huson, a key question is the definition of “critical infrastructure”.
“While we’re impacting their critical infrastructure, they’re affecting our critical infrastructure because the land base is really critical to us.”
In fact, she said, the land is essential in the healing center's programs in the decolonizing process. And she noted that when her people raised concerns about the impact of the pipeline on river water, they were told that if the river were to be contaminated, the company would provide potable water to the healing facility.
“Why would we want to bring in potable, chlorinated dead water when we have living water flowing right by us?” Huson asked.