First nations groups protesting against Enbridge Inc. 's controversial pipeline to the B.C. coast will reconsider their opposition to the project if its regulatory approval process is put on hold.
The Coastal First Nations in a September meeting told Pat Daniel, Enbridge's chief executive, they want the Joint Review Panel (JRP) to delay hearings on the company's proposed Northern Gateway pipeline so negotiations between the two sides can resume and a stronger relationship can be built.
Mr. Daniel agreed to ask the JRP if the process could be postponed, according to a notice of motion the Coastal First Nations filed with the JRP on Monday.
Enbridge's chances of building the pipeline would increase if it could woo opponents such as the Coastal First Nations, an alliance of nearly a dozen B.C. first nations. The battle between the pipeline's proponents and detractors is expected to drag on for years, and a truce might shorten the fight.
The federal government and oil producers want the pipeline built so that Canada has access to Asian markets, rather than just the U.S. market. Gateway supporters argue that the Obama administration's decision to delay its ruling on TransCanada Corp. 's proposed Keystone XL pipeline further emphasizes the need for a line to the West Coast.
The Coastal First Nations say it is not to late for Enbridge to win them over on the Gateway plan.
"If we could have a fresh start and were able build a good relationship, the Coastal First Nations might be willing to take another look at the project," Art Sterritt, the group's executive director, said in an interview. "That wouldn't mean we would necessarily come out and agree with it, but we would certainly take a closer look at it."
Mr. Daniel went to the Coastal First Nations' two-day board meeting in Vancouver on Sept. 28, according to the regulatory filing and confirmed by Enbridge.
"He was going to find out whether [the JRP]would put the process on hold. He was going to investigate that," Mr. Sterritt said. The meeting's minutes, prepared by a Coastal First Nations' administrator and included in the regulatory filing, reflect Mr. Sterritt's account. The Coastal First Nations did not create an audio recording of the meeting.
Enbridge would not say whether Mr. Daniel agreed to ask for a regulatory delay or whether the minutes of the meeting were accurate. "We're not going to confirm any of that," Paul Stanway, Enbridge's spokesperson on Gateway, said in an interview. "That's their interpretation."
Mr. Stanway, however, said Enbridge still wants to speak with its opponents. "Pat [Daniel]has said on a number of occasions that he wants to have an open dialogue with first nations, not just the Coastal First Nations, but all of those that feel like they are impacted by the Northern Gateway proposal, and this is in much the same vein," he said.
The JRP is to launch its regulatory hearings on Jan. 10. Roughly 4,000 intervenors have signed up to participate.
It would be a "game-changer" if Mr. Daniel were "really serious about getting a fresh start," Mr. Sterritt said, noting that would include building a new relationship including other partnerships, such as renewable power projects.
His organization represents 11 of the 12 first nations on B.C.'s coastline north of Vancouver Island, stretching to the province's border with Alaska. The Haisla First Nation at Kitimat is part of the umbrella group.
Annie Roy, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, said the JRP's process could be postponed at the proponent's request. In the case of Northern Gateway, that would be Enbridge. Bute Hydro Inc., for example, asked that JRP hearings on one of its projects wait until the company gathered more information for its environmental impact statement. Its JRP was disbanded last January.