Calvin Helin, image via YouTube.
Calvin Helin is a busy man: attorney, entrepreneur, businessman, activist, volunteer, author, motivational speaker. The modest proprietor of an improbable success story, Helin grew up a poor member of the Tsimshian First Nation in Port Simpson, BC. He now advocates against the injustice he once experienced—economic, political, social, and environmental. Mild-mannered, soft spoken, calm and calculated, Helin is an unlikely candidate to spearhead a standoff with Enbridge. But in his role as president of Eagle Spirit Energy Holdings Ltd., a First Nations-backed company proposing a rival pipeline to Northern Gateway, that’s exactly the straw he’s drawn. Eagle Spirit is hoping to build an alternative pipeline to Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project, which aspires to move bitumen from the Athabasca oil sands to Kitimat, BC, for export to Asian markets. According to Helin, Eagle Spirit will have a route with First Nations support to a better port site than that chosen by Enbridge. Also, they won’t ship bitumen, but rather one of the lightest forms of crude oil: synthetic crude. According to Helin “It will be done with the development of a world-class land and sea environmental model that’s developed with the citizens of northern British Columbia.” I reached out to Helin to see exactly what his plan entails and how his kooky idea of actually listening to the communities these pipelines are affecting may be a gamechanger for Canada’s energy sector.
VICE: You’re a man who has faced many challenges, but how do you foresee beating an oil giant like Enbridge at its own game?
Calvin Helin: We went up and listened to First Nations people and Northerners about what it was they did not like about Enbridge. And the first thing we were told was that the attitude they had was of a big corporate giant coming in and acting like they were going to shove this thing down local throats no matter what. As far as people were concerned, there was no real consultation. People also did not like Kitimat as a port or terminus of the pipeline. We effectively have three better locations than that as part of our project.
Kinder Morgan Energy Partners’ Trans Mountain pipeline and the contentious Keystone XL proposal could also factor into the equation as more competition for your company. What can Eagle Spirit offer that Enbridge, Kinder Morgan and TransCanada can’t?
There won’t be a pipeline unless First Nations buy into it, and we won’t do this if we don’t have their support. What we’ve found is that, when people are listened to and approached properly, they’re not opposed to it, particularly with a project that has taken their concerns into consideration from square one.
Word is you have the backing of 30 First Nations along the pipeline route and are steadily negotiating with others. How are those talks progressing?
I can’t say how many we have because of these NDAs signed, but it’s substantial, and they are moving ahead very well. One of the key things we were told in our consultations with communities is they did not want bitumen. There is a better way to do it, and what we plan to do is to build a massive upgrader to [produce] synthetic crude oil, which is being shipped all over the place now anyways.
Northern Gateway is projected to cost less than half of what your project would, namely because of the hefty price tag associated with building a refinery. Still, how important is it that your pipeline carries crude oil instead of viscous bitumen?
It’s absolutely critical. We wouldn’t do this if we were trying to ship bitumen. I come from a family of chiefs that were commercial fishermen. All I’m doing is taking a view that I think is practical about the realities of what’s happening. We’re seeking to try and protect the environment as much as possible while providing First Nations with economic and social returns that reflect the risk they’re taking on lands they’ve occupied for over 10,000 years.
The preliminary cost is pegged at $18 billion and Luigi Aquilini, billionaire owner of the Vancouver Canucks, has said he will arrange funding if Eagle Spirit can secure support from the First Nation communities on the line…
What we’ve found is that, because this project is so important to corporations and economies around the world, financing isn’t the problem. The problem is getting the social license. Canada should’ve done this a long time ago and the question of shipping oil would have received more acceptance.
Canadian literary legend Peter C. Newman, who edited three of your four books and has reported on this story for Maclean’s, wrote that, “What Helin represents is a First Nation’s-led revamp of Canada’s energy sector.” Do you agree with that claim?
I have the utmost respect for Peter’s perspective on what happens and the trends that are taking place. What’s happening is part of a correction of the undone business of Canada, which is bringing the aboriginal population into having a fair share of the economic activity. Almost all of the resources are exported out of our traditional territories and, more often than not, we’re left with an environmental mess. He clearly sees that.
Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said he plans on meeting the mid-June deadline for a decision on the pipeline. Can Eagle Spirit mobilize a counter-attack in that short time frame?
What a lot of industry watchers think is going to happen is that [Enbridge] are going to get a license, but I don’t know if they’re going to be able to build it. Our entire group has been travelling along the pipeline route for the last year and a bit, and we have found that it’s not just the First Nations that are dug in against it, it’s everybody. It should be revealing that in a very industry-friendly small city like Kitimat, Enbridge couldn’t get a vote by their council. People don’t want Enbridge.
You’ve yet to file a formal proposal with the National Energy Board and said you’ll do so only after First Nations concerns are addressed. Are you concerned that it could prove to be an untimely mistake?
The fact is we won’t do it if First Nations people aren’t on side. If it turns out that they aren’t and something else like rail goes forward, we’re all going to be losers. The only way to have an impact is to be proactive.