Headlines from the Hearings

Stephen Hazell reports from the National Energy Board and Joint Review Panel hearings on the Mackenzie Gas Project

Day One: January 25, 2006

Inuvik

A cold bright sun stands just above the horizon at noon with clouds of frozen water rising from buildings and vehicles. Fresh snow on the ground makes the day even brighter still for the commencement of the National Energy Board’s hearings in Inuvik today.

Inuvik is a town of 3,500 located just north of the Arctic Circle on the east channel of the Mackenzie River south of the Beaufort Sea. Inuvik lies in an open woodland of spruce and fir called taiga with arctic tundra nearby to the east and north. Inuvik also lies on the boundary of the traditional territories of the Inuvialuit people and the Gwitch’in Dene people. In the 1970s and 1980s, Inuvik was the centre for oil and gas exploration in Canada’s western Arctic. Partly due to enormous federal subsidies under the National Energy Program, oil and gas was discovered and small quantities of oil were shipped by special oil tankers to market. When the subsidies ended and business conditions changed, exploration activity declined to a low level. Many, but by not means all, Inuvik residents want to revive the natural gas economy through the MGP. But will natural gas development be a panacea for the Mackenzie Delta? And what would it mean for other communities in the Mackenzie Valley such as the Dehcho region, that would benefit far less from gas development.

After prayers and Inuvialuit drumdancing, the hearings for the Mackenzie Gas Project—the largest industrial project in the history of Canada’s North—finally get underway. Two hundred participants–oil industry executives and lawyers, government officials, media representatives and Mackenzie Delta residents jam the Midnight Sun Recreational Complex for the first day of hearings. Few environmental or northern indigenous groups are represented. So I am proud that at least Sierra Club of Canada is playing an active role from the beginning. Paul Falvo, a Yellowknife-based lawyer with Sierra Legal Defence Fund serves as legal counsel to SCC as well as World Wildlife Fund Canada. The third environmentalist in our delegation is Ellen Francis from Pembina Institute in Calgary.

The three NEB members—chair Ken Volman, Donald Hamilton and Gaetan Caron—preside over the hearings. These men have the responsibility to examine the engineering safety, economics and environmental effects of the project and decide whether or not to approve the construction of the MGP, and if so under what conditions. A separate set of hearings of the so-called Joint Review Panel will examine the environment effects of the MGP starting in February and will make recommendations to the NEB in late 2005. But it is the NEB that makes the decisions as to whether the MGP should proceed and if so under what conditions.

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A panel of Imperial Oil executives is the first to testify. They are questioned for several hours by Richard Neufeld, a lawyer representing the Mackenzie Explorers Group. He contends that the capacity of the gathering pipelines in the Mackenzie Delta should be expanded to accommodate additional natural gas that his clients will produce. So while the Mackenzie Explorers Group anticipates a quicker ramping up of gas exploration in the Delta, their view very much is consistent with Sierra Club of Canada’s perspective that the MGP is just the beginning of a process of systematic petro-industrialization of the Mackenzie Valley.

Earlier today, nine northern and national non-governmental organizations held a media conference and briefing to welcome the commencement of the National Energy Board hearings. In addition to Sierra Club of Canada, the groups included World Wildlife Fund Canada, Sierra Legal Defence Fund, Pembina Institute, Canadian Arctic Resources Committee, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society – NWT chapter, Alternatives North, Ecology North, and Nature Canada. Steve Kakfwi, former NWT premier, also contributed to the media release. Paul Falvo and Ellen Francis of Pembina Institute joined me at the media conference held at Aurora College in Inuvik. The key message of our NGOs is to welcome the hearings.

The National Energy Board is an independent quasi-judicial body largely immune from the political interference that has characterized the review of the MGP applications and environmental impact statements so far. The NEB will assess whether the MGP can be constructed and operated safely over 25 years or more as global climate change warms the Mackenzie Valley as much as anywhere else on earth, causing permafrost melting that will adversely affect the pipelines. The NEB will need to determine how to ensure that land use plans are completed before any pipeline construction begins—such plans would include protected areas of ecological and cultural significance to communities. The destination of the natural gas once it flows south through the pipeline is also important—should Mackenzie gas fuel accelerated development of dirty tar sands oil or displace coal and oil in hearing homes and generating electricity in Alberta and elsewhere? Finally, the NEB must examine the cumulative effects on the environment and northern society of the MGP in combination with other natural gas developments it would trigger.

Alternatives North pointed out that the absence of funding for NGOs intervening in the NEB meant that many could not attend the opening hearings—including any Alternative North representatives. Finally, in his statement Steve Kakfwi hearkened back to the Berger Inquiry 30 years and wondered whether much had changed. “Berger concluded that the social impacts of the [Mackenzie Gas Project] proposal on Aboriginal people would be devastating, while the economic benefits would be limited. There are no guarantees that anything would be difference this time.”

Tomorrow, the Board is expected to examine the development plans for Taglu, one of the three anchor fields in the Mackenzie Delta.