Lack of transparency fueling uncertainty in resource sector

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FORT ST. JOHN, B.C. —Its been over a year since the province reached an agreement with Blueberry River First Nation following a historic ruling in June of 2021 by the Supreme Court of British Columbia, and still, residents are in the dark about how the ruling will impact resource development in their communities.

The Supreme Court ruling has caused a shake-up in how the province issues oil and gas permits in Northeast B.C., with the ministry of energy now needing to look at applications through a lens of preserving the rights promised to Indigenous peoples in Treaty 8.

For the past month, Energeticcity has attempted to figure out where the province and BRFN are at in their consultation process. However, those answers seem to be kept close to the chest.

South Peace MLA Mike Bernier estimates that the region has lost about $2.5 billion in drilling activities in the 2022/23 construction season due to permitting delays. This figure doesn’t account for workers staying here and spending money, which drives the economy in the Northeast. The ministry of energy was unable to confirm this amount.

Bernier states that the region is already beginning to feel these economic impacts caused by companies pulling out of the area due to uncertainty in their investment.

“Anytime a major company who operates in our area decides to pull billions of dollars of investment out of BC and put it in Alberta, that means we lose jobs, we lose opportunities in our region, family-supporting jobs, and the revenue that comes with that,” Bernier said.

He adds that one of the main concerns coming into his office is from residents who have previously worked in oil and gas, forestry or mining sectors who have lost their jobs.

“[They’re] being told it’s because these companies are downsizing and moving back to Alberta. They can’t get permits, and that’s a scary position to be in for everyone.”

Bernier said that some companies who have “pulled out” of the region told him that it was due to continual delays and a lack of answers and certainty from the provincial government.

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In a statement, the ministry of energy and mines said that oil and gas permitting has not stopped in Northeast B.C.

“The Oil and Gas Commission has approved some authorizations for oil and gas activities in the northeast.  More than 380 decisions have been made on permits in the northeast since January 2022,” the ministry said.

While Energeticcity was unable to confirm that the region has lost $2.5 billion, Dr. Liam Kelly, assistant professor of economics at the University of Northern British Columbia, says this estimate is probably not out of line but adds that, at this point, this money isn’t necessarily gone for the region indefinitely.

“The caveat I would add to that is just because things are stalled, that money isn’t necessarily gone. As projects come back online and as the approval process gets reformed, I think you will see a lot of that activity coming back,” Kelly said.

“Companies that are potentially shutting down projects or slowing down, I think you’ll see that change.”

Kelly says at the rate the region is at now, he doesn’t anticipate any long-term economic impacts, but that could change depending on how long delays continue.

However, Kelly also notes the importance of the consultations that have caused these delays.

“Based on the court case, these companies have been able to proceed without any real effective consultation with [Blueberry]. So while this is a big impact, I think in some ways it’s kind of catch up,” Kelly said.

“The government and these resource companies have been playing a bit fast and loose for a good long time now, and now this issue has to be dealt with.”

Minister of Indigenous relations and reconciliation Murray Rankin says that two negotiations are taking place — one directly with Blueberry and another with other Treaty 8 nations who have experienced similar impacts to their traditional territories.

“I can say that we are making progress. I regret as well that it’s taken this long, but it’s a fundamental decision that requires a fundamental response,” Rankin stated.

“We’re dealing with healing the land, we’re dealing with a new regime. We’re dealing with compensation because this was a case after all about a breach of Treaty 8, and so I’m hopeful we’ll have more to say literally in the next short while,” Rankin continued.

Doig River Chief Trevor Makadahay also said that information regarding the next steps with the province would be “coming out shortly” but didn’t elaborate when.

“As with any negotiations, they’re not easy, and it’s a learning process on both sides. It’s something new, so definitely it’s gonna be a living document when it’s finished. We’ll be able to change whatever doesn’t work, and we’ll find a new solution,” Makadahay said.

“At the end of the day, we have to find a balance between the environment and industry and how to coincide with everything and still have a place for our future generations to practice their rights.”

Makadahay added that he wasn’t worried about resource companies pulling out of the region during consultations.

“Even if they pull out, they’ll be back. The Montney Play is one of the richest in the world. You’d be silly to walk away from that if you already invested a bunch of money into land sales and infrastructure,” Makadahay said.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers says it remains optimistic that the province and Blueberry River First Nation will soon find an interim solution but adds that the current situation is creating uncertainty.

“The longer it takes to reach a resolution, the more difficult it is for companies to make their investment decisions, which would bring economic growth to the province and supply responsibly produced energy to meet a growing demand,” said Richard Wong, regulatory and operations director at CAPP.

Wong said that in the longer term, establishing a durable solution that both enables responsible resource development and supports Indigenous reconciliation is the association’s top priority.

The ministry of energy said that it continues to “work to provide critical clarity” following the Blueberry court case.

“Negotiations continue between our government and other Treaty 8 Nations to improve land and resource stewardship. Negotiations are advancing, and we hope to have more to say on this topic soon.”

During the process of gathering information for this story, Energeticcity reached out numerous times over two weeks to get a statement from Treaty 8 leaders. Blueberry River declined to comment, Halfway River was unavailable, and other Nations did not respond.

Tourmaline and the Fort St. John Petroleum Association also did not provide a comment.

Gathering information about this topic proved to be difficult, and most efforts were fruitless. While this is to be expected in journalism, especially when consultations are involved, there was some frustration as unanswered phone calls and emails piled up.

An op-ed about the process of writing this story is available now. To learn more about the information-gathering process and what went on behind the scenes while writing this story, click here.

With files from Rob Shaw.

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