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TC Energy delays plan to return workers to disputed Coastal GasLink site

TC Energy Corp. will delay restarting construction on a section of its C$6.6 billion Coastal Gaslink Pipeline Ltd. project pending negotiations with First Nations groups that issued an eviction notice to workers at the site.

The company said Jan. 7 that it wrote a letter to a hereditary chief of the Wet'suwet'en First Nation requesting a meeting to discuss the circumstances that led to the termination of an access agreement with a subgroup of the Wet'suwet'en and the subsequent eviction order. The First Nation actions were taken Jan. 3-4. TC Energy's decision to seek negotiations appears to reverse an assertion Jan. 6 that crews would return to the site later this week. The Calgary, Alberta-based company made both statements in an updated news release originally posted to the Coastal GasLink website Jan. 5.

SNL Image

Crews work to clear the right of way for TC Energy's Coastal GasLink pipeline project in northern British Columbia.
Source: Coastal GasLink Pipeline Ltd.

"Coastal GasLink has written to Chief Namox to set up a meeting to discuss issues of importance to the Hereditary Chiefs of the Office of the Wet'suwet'en," the Jan. 7 update said. "While Coastal GasLink is re-starting work generally across the right-of-way, we believe that dialogue is preferable to confrontation and will delay re-mobilization near Workforce Accommodation site 9A while engagement and a negotiated resolution remain possible."

The action by the Wet'suwet'en came on the heels of a Dec. 31, 2019, injunction obtained by Coastal GasLink that ordered protesters to allow access to the site. TC Energy has agreements with elected leaders of First Nations along the pipeline route, including the Wet'suwet'en, but a group of clans known as Dark House and hereditary chiefs have objected to the project. A blockade at a bridge on a remote forestry road leading to the site in early 2019 resulted in the arrest of several protesters.

The pipeline company has informed the Wet'suwet'en "that we will periodically need to visit sites in and around site 9A for safety and environmental reasons while the accommodation site remains unoccupied," the Jan. 7 update said. "Based on Chief Namox public comments, we anticipate a positive response to our meeting request and hope that a meeting can be set up quickly to resolve the issues at hand."

The optimistic note is a departure from a Jan. 5 statement in which the company said that "[o]ver the past year, Coastal GasLink has repeatedly requested face-to-face meetings with the Unist'ot'en [Dark House] and the Office of the Wet'suwet'en but these requests have either been ignored or rejected by these group."

The disputed stretch of the pipeline's planned route crosses publicly owned land that has been claimed by the Wet'suwet'en nation. While most other provinces are covered by federal treaty agreements reached with First Nations groups in the 19th and early 20th centuries that include territorial agreements, treaties were not signed with most nations past the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia. The province has dozens of unresolved land claims with Canada's federal government that cover most of its area.

Coastal GasLink is a provincially regulated project. It would span 670 kilometers of northern British Columbia to connect shale gas fields in the northeast with the Royal Dutch Shell PLC-led LNG Canada Development Inc. export terminal on the Pacific Coast.

Separately Jan. 7, Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage voiced objection to a letter from a United Nations committee that urged Canada to halt construction on large energy projects contested by First Nations groups, including Coastal GasLink, the federal government-owned Trans Mountain Corp.'s oil pipeline expansion, and province-owned BC Hydro and Power Authority's Site C hydroelectric project. The stop-work recommendation was made by the United Nations' Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

"We wish that the UN would pay as much attention to the majority of First Nation groups that support important projects such as Trans Mountain and Coastal GasLink," Savage said in a statement. "First Nations leaders increasingly recognize that responsible natural resource development can serve as a path from poverty to prosperity for their people. Yet this UN body seemingly ignores these voices. Canada's duly elected representatives — not unaccountable international committees — are responsible for governing decisions in this country."