In March 2020, First Things First Okanagan sent a letter to the editor and to the BC government in support of the claims of the Wet’suwet’en in British Columbia.
The standoff between the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs and the Provincial government over the Coastal Gaslink pipeline entered a new phase a few days ago when RCMP began arresting people at the protest sites along the pipeline route. This escalating conflict highlights unresolved issues of aboriginal right and title and the way our governments are responding to the climate emergency.
First Things First Okanagan sides with the Hereditary Chiefs in asserting first, that the LNG project is completely inconsistent with the BC and Canadian governments’ stated policies on climate change and second, that aboriginal rights have not been adequately incorporated into decisions about the pipeline.
Two Wet’suwet’en Chiefs have launched a claim against Ottawa, stating that the federal government has a constitutional obligation to adhere to its emissions targets under the Paris Agreement, and that it is unconstitutional to allow projects such as the liquified natural gas (LNG) pipeline and terminal to be built. Emissions from fracking, liquifying and shipping natural gas are estimated to be 10 million tonnes, or one quarter of B.C.’s entire greenhouse-gas budget for 2030 and two-thirds of its 2050 emissions target. This calculation doesn’t include downstream emissions when the gas is burned.
The chiefs are right: intensifying the fracking and liquefaction of natural gas is inconsistent with BC’s and Canada’s commitment to climate action. Rather than curtailing emissions, the approach of the provincial and federal governments seems to be to get as much of Canada’s hydrocarbon resources to market as quickly as possible before being forced to transition to green energy. These are not the actions of governments that take the climate crisis seriously.
Furthermore, the fracked gas industry, which feeds the LNG industry, has potentially serious health implications. Fugitive methane from gas wells has been implicated in a number of health effects on people living nearby (primarily First Nations’ communities), including respiratory and reproductive health effects. Fugitive methane from inactive wells is not well monitored and the BC Government excluded a consideration of the health effects of methane from its 2018 scientific review of the industry. These are not the actions of a government concerned about reconciliation and social justice.
Although twenty First Nations Bands have signed on to the project, several have not and the Hereditary Chief’s argue that they are the arbiters of what is permissible in the Wet’suwet’en territory as a whole. The issue of consent is central to the Hereditary Chiefs’ opposition to the project. The Supreme Court of Canada in the 1997 Delgamuukw decision, confirmed that aboriginal title does exist in British Columbia. The BC and federal governments have let two decades slip by without negotiating the terms of aboriginal title. The permit and consultation process that the government imposes on the industry, and which it has followed, was not developed in consultation with First Nations or negotiated with reference to aboriginal rights and title. First Things First Okanagan believes that there is reason to question the legitimacy of the whole process.
The two failures of government, failure to take meaningful action on climate change and failure to negotiate the terms of aboriginal title, have now become intertwined in such a way that it seems impossible to address one without addressing the other. Opponents, young and old, have formed a strong coalition to support the Hereditary Chiefs because they see the injustice of inaction on these two critical issues. The current stand-off as well as future pipeline and resource projects will face similar opposition until our governments accept their responsibility to meet scientifically defensible GHG emissions targets and to negotiate a new relationship with First Nations.
The failure of our governments, provincial and federal, to take meaningful action on climate change is doubly disturbing because proven energy alternatives exist (e.g., solar, wind, geothermal) and our governments have taken only limited action to encourage these. Subsidizing oil and gas exploration and infrastructure to move those products to markets establishes an economic imperative to use that infrastructure over a 30 year plus time frame.
Every day we delay in making the transition to green energy guarantees a worse future climate. Any delay is questionable, locking in a delay of three or more decades is unconscionable.
Mike Healey, Vice-chair, First Things First Okanagan
First Things First Okanagan promotes awareness of climate change and works to find solutions for a better future. www.firstthingsfirstokanagan.com
Mike Healey is a retired environmental scientist, UBC Professor and government consultant with expertise in climate change, fish and marine ecology.