First Nations bar B.C. from LNG summit over sweet gas assessment exemption

FORT NELSON, B.C. - A group of B.C. officials has been kicked out of a First Nations forum on liquefied natural gas over the government's decision to exempt most of the gas produced in the province from mandatory environmental assessment.

Chief Sharleen Gale of the Fort Nelson First Nation, organizer of the summit in the northeast corner of the province, asked the bureaucrats to leave and escorted them out.

"There was no consultation as far as changing that policy," said Chief Terry Teegee of the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, which represents eight First Nations communities in northern B.C. "We were blindsided."

Cheryl Casimer, an executive of the First Nations Summit, called the revisions "another unacceptable example of government once again attempting to water down and minimize its consultation and accommodation obligations with our communities."

Earlier this week, the Liberal government passed an order in council that means, as of April 28, natural gas plants that produce so-called "sweet gas" will no longer face an automatic environmental assessment. According to figures from the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission, that would account for about 99 per cent of the natural gas produced in the province.

Environment Minister Mary Polak said processing plants will still be subject to an approval process overseen by the commission. The revisions eliminate duplication, she said.

"We haven't specified the exemption of sweet natural gas plants. What we have done is remove the size trigger and left in place the trigger of pollutants — in this case, sulphur," Polak said in an interview earlier this week.

"We want to spend most of our attention on those that are of higher risk and those would be the sour gas plants."

Sweet gas requires relatively little purifying, whereas sour gas contains more than one per cent of toxic hydrogen sulphide that must be removed before the gas can be used. Sweet or sour, processing plants that emit more than two tonnes a day of sulphur will still trigger a review, Polak said.

The conservation legal group West Coast Environmental Law deemed it "environmental deregulation."

It's unclear if plants that would make up the province's much-anticipated $1-trillion liquefied natural gas industry would trigger public environmental assessments under other provisions of the Environmental Assessment Act.

Several First Nations have sent a request to B.C. Premier Christy Clark to meet and discuss the amendments.

"It's a lesser process," Teegee said of the oil and gas commission approval.

Many First Nations were equally upset that the decision was made without consultation, despite their interests in land use decisions that impact their traditional territories.

"In a stunningly stupid move, the province has effectively declared war on all B.C. First Nations and jeopardized all LNG discussions throughout the entire province of B.C.," Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.

The union, the Assembly of First Nations and the First Nation Summit all condemned the changes, which also exempt destination resorts from the environmental review process.

The environmental assessment process was flawed but it was a public process to review proposed developments, Phillip said.

Teegee said many First Nations have shown interest in the province's nascent liquefied natural gas industry but now feel "betrayed" by the provincial government.

"They're going to have to fix this problem," he said.

The Fort Nelson band called an emergency meeting after expelling the provincial bureaucrats.

"We are meeting with community and First Nations chiefs from across B.C. to talk about how we are going to protect our land, rivers and treaty with all this shale gas development in our territory," the band said on its Facebook page.

- By Dene Moore in Vancouver


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