A PTP helipad high in the mountains. All photos via the author.
Following a logging road along the Kitimat River through rolling, avalanche-prone valleys, I saw a grizzly bear for the first time in my life. Construction has severed a landscape of glaciers, young and old growth forests, wild berries, mountainside waterfalls, and habitat for animals like the grizzly and their exceptional cousin the spirit bear. A long, narrow pipeline corridor—which could eventually be leased by multiple corporations—has already been clear-cut. Heaps of discarded trees, stacked in burn piles, await incineration by Chevron’s contractors.
With preliminary clearing underway, Chevron’s Pacific Trails Pipeline (PTP) is the furthest along of more than a dozen hydraulically fractured (fracked) gas and diluted bitumen (dilbit) pipelines proposed to push through BC’s north. Collectively, the pipelines intend to weave over and bore through mountains, cross thousands of waterways, and carve through rainforests en route to the coast.
The majority of these pipelines are proposed to service a new liquefied natural gas (LNG) export industry that BC’s premiere Christy Clark, who has populated her cabinet with former Enbridge lobbyists, has promoted at great expense.
If built, LNG projects would necessitate the construction of tens of thousands of new fracking wells, up to 11 new gas pipelines, a contentious hydroelectric dam called Site C, and up to 18 coastal gas liquefaction and export facilities.
Just part of this infrastructure could more than double BC’s carbon emissions, disrupt vital salmon-spawning estuaries, jam the coast with thousands of super-tankers, generate emissions worse than coal, flood vital agricultural lands, and permanently remove hundreds of billions of litres of freshwater from the hydrological cycle.
Additionally, Enbridge Northern Gateway proposes dual pipelines to the Pacific—one to export diluted bitumen from the tar sands and another to import the diluent used to make bitumen flow in pipes. From the coast, Enbridge plans to move dilbit in very large crude carriers (VLCCs), which can carry up to 2.2 million barrels (349.6 million litres) of oil.
LNG and bitumen supertankers would exit the coast through channels like the Hecate Straight, which Environment Canada notes is
“the fourth most dangerous body of water in the world.” A 2011 report on Enbridge’s project warns that “between 1999 and 2009, there were 1,275 marine vessel incidents along Canada’s Pacific coast, including collisions, explosions, groundings, and sinkings.”
A right of way is cleared for PTP through this valley
“There is a barrage of oil and gas developments being proposed in this whole North West and if they were successful we would see a wasteland development. We wouldn’t see a build-up of community development,” argues Mel Bazil, a resident of Hazelton and long-term supporter of the Unist’ot’en Camp blockade. “It comes with forms of violence: domestic violence, a large influx of drugs, missing and murdered women, and pollution.”
Although tar sands infrastructure—like Northern Gateway—has attracted far more attention and public vitriol than any LNG project, a recently leaked document shows that the furthest developed piece of ‘LNG’ infrastructure, Chevron’s Pacific Trails Pipeline, could be used to export diluted bitumen from the tar sands instead of gas.
In a letter penned by Chevron VP Rod Maier and leaked from the Moricetown band, the company seeks permission in negotiations with Moricetown First Nation to sell their pipeline “to any company constructing or actively seeking permits for an oil or bitumen pipeline along the corridor occupied by the PTP pipeline” after “a period of five years.” At 42 inches in diameter, PTP dwarfs Northern Gateway, Keystone XL, and Line 9 in size, making it one of the largest potential bitumen pipelines in North America.
After multiple, unsuccessful attempts to reach Chevron and Moricetown’s Chief Barry Nikal, I spoke to former Liberal Party of Canada leader Bob Rae about the letter. Rae is overseeing negotiations between First Nations and Chevron in an agreement called the First Nations Limited Partnership (FNLP).
“We have no intention of ever allowing the natural gas pipeline to be used for export or used by any other product, including oil, including bitumen,” Rae assured me. “This is not an oil pipeline; it’s a natural gas pipeline.”
The leaked letter contradicts Rae’s guarantee, unambiguously seeking provisions to transport diluted bitumen through PTP. The letter, however, outlines the company’s “current understanding of the proposed terms” and has not yet been formally agreed upon by the Moricetown band.
If these terms are realized, Chevron’s PTP would follow TransCanada’s Energy East project, which proposes to use a four decade old natural gas pipeline to carry dilbit—a substance more acidic, viscous, corrosive, and more difficult to clean up than conventional crude.
“Their plan all along was to build LNG pipelines and to sell them as bitumen pipelines to these companies that are having a hard time getting tar sands to the coast,” argues Toghestiy, a hereditary chief of the Likhts'amisyu clan. “If I was an investor… that’s what I would be thinking about—I’d make sure there was a backup plan.”
PTP would also create access to massive shale deposits along its route, enabling fracking near towns like Houston and Smithers and throughout pristine areas of the coastal mountain ranges and interior. With a reversal in the line, fracked gas could be shipped east to fuel bitumen extraction in Alberta’s tar sands.
“If you’re against Enbridge, if you’re against the Kinder Morgan, if you’re against the KXL pipeline, if you’re against the Line 9 project, if you’re against the Mackenzie pipeline that’s going up north, why aren’t you standing up against the LNG pipelines?” Toghestiy asked.
Land is already cleared for export facilities, pipe yards, and worker camps in communities like Kitimat and Terrace, while helicopter traffic has become ceaseless along the proposed pipeline right of ways. Increasingly, crews are surveying land and conducting preliminary fieldwork for new pipelines, in many cases prior to having their projects approved.
“When I moved here two-three years ago there was only 2 or 3 proposed pipelines—now, I’ve even lost count how many. More than 10 for sure,” a resident of Hazelton, Darko Košćal, told me. We spoke in his backyard and our conversation was drowned out by a helicopter. “Since last spring it’s started being very noisy and every day it’s becoming noisier and noisier,” he shouted. “More helicopters than in Vancouver some days.”
For Chevron’s PTP, enormous clearings await workers and construction materials at the entrances of the Clore and Kitimat River logging roads. For months, however, these have sat empty as “the pipeline company itself has not yet made any final investment decisions,” Bob Rae said. Chevron, which seeks to connect their fracking fields in northeastern BC to the Pacific, has been unable to secure any international customers for their gas.
More broadly, the LNG market appears shaky and even speculative, adding incentive for corporations to ship dilbit. Natural gas prices have recently plunged while BC lags behind the US and Australia in establishing their LNG industry.
China, Canada’s most sought after customer, has begun to develop the largest gas reserves on the planet, and recently signed the largest gas deal in history—valued at $400 billion—with Russia. BC’s Minister of Natural Gas Development Rich Coleman downplayed this deal in a comment to media: “We beat the Russians at hockey and we’ll beat them at liquefied natural gas.”
Adding to this uncertainty, the federal government has issued permits to export an impossible amount of gas. According to a study by geocscientist David Hughes, meeting existing approvals would “require increasing BC’s gas production to nearly 50 percent more than all of Canada currently produces—within less than a decade” and fracking “more than three times BC gas reserves.”
Petronas, a Malaysian oil giant, is threatening to cancel its $10 billion LNG investment or to postpone its project for over a decade, citing downward trends in the market, a “slow regulatory pace,” BC’s LNG tax, “marginal” profits, and “a high cost environment.”
Similarly, the Apache Corporation abandoned their 50 percent stake in the PTP and Kitimat LNG projects this summer, becoming the third major investor to do so.
“This is not a feasible project. There’s too much opposition to it and we’re really not willing to risk our territories, our waters, for projects that aren’t even economically sound,” argues Freda Huson, a chief of the Unist’ot’en clan. She lives with Toghestiy at the Unist’ot’en Camp, a community established to blockade PTP, Northern Gateway, and TransCanada’s Coastal Gaslink.
“All of the original players, Apache, EOG and EnCana, all walked away from [PTP]. EOG and EnCana sold their shares for the pipeline to Chevron,” noted Toghestiy.
“Chevron has one of the worst histories on the planet when it comes to dealing with individuals and communities that they’re impacting,” Toghestiy said, highlighting the company’s alleged
orchestration of murder in Nigeria and the “environmental catastrophe” they left behind in Ecuador.
An empty clearing awaits workers and materials for PTP
“That’s who’s in charge of their shares now and that’s who we’re up against,” Toghestiy said. “Chevron’s the last man standing.”
The “high cost environment” of BC’s oil and gas sector is compounded by the province’s unique land-rights situation. Most of the province is unceded indigenous land, meaning it was never absorbed into Canada through treaties, bills of sale, surrender, or war. Accordingly, the federal and provincial governments lack clear legal authority to build any of these projects without consent from affected indigenous peoples.
Nations like the Gitxsan and the Wet’suwet’en, which journalist and filmmaker Damien Gillis notes “form a 500 km-long vertical wall, smack in the middle of every major pipeline route proposed across northern BC,” have banned all pipelines from crossing their territories under a system of governance that long predates Canada. To bolster their law, they have reoccupied their traditional territories, repeatedly evicted work crews and surveyors, and established permanent communities and structures directly in the paths of pipelines. This casts watchful eyes upon remote territories, physically inhibits construction, and creates a stronger case for aboriginal title under existing Canadian laws.
The Gitxsan Luutkudziiwus clan has recently constructed a cabin to blockade TransCanada’s Prince Rupert Gas Transmission line, while the Unist’ot’en are positioned to thwart the construction of three major projects.
To build through this area, government and industry would likely have to use force.
“They’re going to have to try and slay us, but they’re not going to do it. We’re too big and we’re too powerful. Our ancestors are with us,” Toghestiy said.
Accordingly, Chevron intends to disregard aboriginal rights and title in pursuing PTP, stating that any agreement they sign with Moricetown does not “affirm, recognize, abrogate or derogate from any asserted or determined aboriginal rights, including aboriginal title.”
In other words, Bob Rae explained, the deal “has nothing to do with aboriginal rights or title.”
A sign in the community of Hazleton
Following instruction from the province, the project is wrongly treating band councils created by the Government of Canada through the Indian Act, who only govern small reservations, as having the ability to make decisions over vast, unsurrendered territories that are managed by traditional, hereditary leaders.
FNLP has signed deals with fifteen band councils and is still hoping to secure support from Moricetown. Significantly, the leaked document notes, the PTP pipeline can’t be converted to carry oil “without the consent of FNLP members”—all of whom are band councils who have no jurisdiction in the area these decisions are affecting.
“These people have been so oppressed and now they’re given the opportunity to make decisions outside their own borders, outside the reserves,” said Ambrose Williams, a Gitxsan supporter of the Unist’ot’en. “When you give that much power to an oppressed people, they’ll start signing deals.”
When asked why PTP is consulting with band councils instead of the hereditary leaders the Supreme Court of Canada recognized as having jurisdiction over Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan, FNLP chairman Bob Rae deflected responsibility. “There are issues of internal governance that are really up to the First Nations to sort out. We’re being very respectful of the jurisdiction of the First Nations,” he said.
The leak also reveals Chevron’s plan to install a security gate at the Morice River bridge, which is treated by the Unist’ot’en as a sovereign border. The security gate would block Unist’ot’en clan members from entering their homes and territories, while attempting to ensure that “PTP and its contractors will have unrestricted access to the area.”
The Morice River bridge
Currently, only clan-approved hunting, logging, and tree-planting operations, known Unist’ot’en supporters, and those who pass through a protocol of free, prior, and informed consent, are permitted to cross the bridge.
The leak also outlines the financial benefits offered to Moricetown for their support of PTP. Notably, they are promised “preferred access to employment opportunities,” training incentives, contracts for aboriginal businesses, and $20.4 million paid out to the band over 35 years.
After a $1.1 million signing bonus, payments amount to just over $550,000 per year or approximately $286 per band member. Having formerly worked as the band’s Economic Development Officer, Freda Huson warns that under the government’s current policies every additional dollar the band makes from PTP could cause the government to withdraw a dollar of funding.
“The crumbs they’re throwing at band councils are going to come and go and the people that are going to suffer the most are the children,” Huson said. “They’re the ones that are going to suffer when there’s no clean water. They’re the ones that are going to suffer when there’s no fish, no moose.”
“We’re doing everything in our part to ensure that doesn’t happen here.”