By Steven Chua, The Canadian Press
VANCOUVER – The B.C. government is trying to bring First Nations on board to its ambitious natural gas venture by asking for their input on environmental issues at the early stages of each project.
Aboriginal Relations Minister John Rustad said Friday the initiative marks a new way of dealing with First Nations, companies and government with respect to an industry that the provincial government said could be worth billions.
“The goal is to build an environmental stewardship initiative that addresses our collective conservation and development interests,” said Rustad.
“We’re actually going to go out and bring First Nation input and industry input together with the province to develop this as opposed to coming out with an idea and asking for comment.”
However, Rustad said the goal is to create agreements between government and First Nations, not change laws.
“The LNG environmental stewardship initiative is not intended to change or alter the current regulatory process,” he said. “We look at this is as really being a process that looks somewhat different from a regulatory process and outside of it, but it’s a way to be able to bring the groups together.”
Chief Robert Joseph of the Gwa-waenuk First Nation said it’s appropriate to start dialogue between First Nations and government now.
Agreements are a good place to begin he said, but ultimately a legislative framework would be best.
“I think that contracts are contracts and if we can live up to the letter and intent and spirit of contracts that probably would suffice,” said Joseph. “But in the long term if governments are really committed, of course they would think about legislative amendments and changes.”
Robert Dennis, who is in charge of resource development for the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, said that the initiative could result in a future framework for payment and environmental standards for a natural gas industry.
“We’re in very detailed negotiations regarding benefits agreements with industry, we will be in very detailed negotiations with the province regarding revenue sharing,” said Robert Dennis, who is in charge of resource development for the Wet’suwet’en.
Dennis said that the initiative could allow the nation to hold government more accountable on environmental issues surrounding natural gas projects.
Wet’suwet’en territory surrounds Burns Lake, a northern B.C. community, and locals are concerned that gas pipelines would run through it, he said.
The government want to have a template for First Nations collaboration in place by this November.
The province will be approaching industry and First Nations and will be asking how they want to be a part of the framework in the coming weeks.
B.C. has run into disagreements with First Nations and the environmental impact of natural gas.
Last month, the province passed an order in council without public debate that would have removed about 99 per cent of the natural gas produced in the province from automatic environmental reviews, but reversed the decision.
The announcement came on the same day a group of B.C. officials were kicked out of a First Nations forum on liquefied natural gas.
Environment Minister Mary Polak apologized for the decision, saying the government failed to discuss the amendment with First Nations, prior to approval.
Premier Christy Clark has touted the development of the LNG industry as a cornerstone of her B.C. jobs plan, but must also meet legislated targets to reduce emissions by 2020.