T he Canadian Federal Court of Appeal has overturned approval for a controversial tar sands pipeline because of the government’s failure to properly consult with the First Nations communities that would be affected. The ruling has been hailed as a “landmark” decision by environmentalists.
The ruling came to the conclusion that “Canada offered only a brief, hurried and inadequate opportunity… to exchange and discuss information and to dialogue. It would have taken Canada little time and little organisational effort to engage in meaningful dialogue on these and other subjects of prime importance to Aboriginal Peoples. But this did not happen."
The $6.5 billion dollar Northern Gateway pipeline is being managed by Canadian energy firm Enbridge. The president of the pipeline project, John Carruthers, said Enbridge would consult with Aboriginal groups but is still committed to the project and "protecting the environment and the traditional way of life of First Nations and Métis peoples and communities along the project route".
The Canadian government approved the pipeline project following a National Energy Board Review, although it was subject to 209 conditions. However, the government is constitutionally required to consult with the First Nations communities under Canada’s historic Truth and Reconciliation Commission on ‘cultural genocide’ against Indigenous peoples. The 94 recommendations commit the government to “meaningful consultation” and free, prior, and informed consent for projects that would overlap onto traditional Indigenous territories. The court found that the government had not made “reasonable efforts to inform and consult”.
The court ruling said the pipeline project would significantly affect seven First Nation communities in the state of British Columbia that were involved in the appeal - which was brought to court last October - including the Heiltsuk Tribal Council and the Haida Nation. Their territories include waterways that would be used by oil tankers and land that the pipeline would cross. Some indigenous leaders have warned that the struggle against the pipeline may not be over.
Environmental justice lawyer Barry Robinson told CBC: "First Nations, local communities, and environmental interests said no to Enbridge 12 years ago when it first proposed the project. And now that "no" has the backing of the courts. Between on-the-ground opposition and the federal government's promises to keep B.C.'s North Coast tanker free and demonstrate climate leadership, this pipeline is never getting built."
The Northern Gateway pipeline project, if completed, would stretch 1,177 km and would carry 525,000 barrels per day of diluted bitumen tar sands oil from Alberta to the northern British Columbia town of Kitimat. Once at the Pacific coast the tar would be loaded onto tankers to be exported. Critics argue that the risk of oil spills from the pipeline threatens the traditional First Nation way of life - which is reliant on the local ecosystem - and could wreak environmental havoc on pristine forests and marine ecosystems.
The nature of Alberta tar sands crude is also worrying to environmentalists because it has to be diluted with other petroleum products before it is transported, posing a greater public health risk in the event of a spill.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has said it will review the ruling before deciding what its next moves are, suggesting that the project may not be reapproved. There has been scepticism among some progressive critics of Mr. Trudeau that his environmental policies will be hugely different from those of the previous Conservative government which advocated the construction of pipelines.
CBC has more information on the Canadian Federal Court of Appeal’s pipeline ruling.