BC-Treaty 8 negotiations fuel uncertainty & delays, as investment moves from NE

Written By Spencer Hall, Energeticcity.ca

“Just because things are stalled, that money isn’t necessarily gone.” –Dr. Liam Kelly

Special to Northern Beat

It’s been over a year since the province reached an agreement with Blueberry River First Nation following a historic court ruling in June 2021, and residents are still in the dark about how it will impact resource development in their communities.

The Supreme Court of British Columbia ruling caused a shake-up in how the province issues oil and gas permits in northeastern B.C., with the Ministry of Energy now required to review applications through the 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 Blueberry River Nation are at in their consultation process – answers are hard to come by.

Delays breed uncertainty

South Peace MLA Mike Bernier estimates 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 said the region is already beginning to feel the economic impacts of companies pulling investment due to uncertainty.

“Anytime a major company who operates in our area decides to pull billions of dollars of investment out of B.C…. that means we lose jobs.”

Mike Bernier

“Anytime a major company who operates in our area decides to pull billions of dollars of investment out of B.C. 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.

One of the main concerns Bernier’s hearing is from residents who’ve lost their jobs after previously working in the oil and gas, forestry or mining sectors.

“[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 some companies who have “pulled out” of the region told him that it was because of continual delays, along with a lack of answers and certainty from the provincial government.

In a recent statement, the B.C. energy ministry said Oil and Gas Commission has made more than 380 permitting decisions in the Northeast since January 2022 and has approved some authorizations for oil and gas activities.

“Money isn’t necessarily gone”

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, said the estimate is probably not out-of-line.

“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.”

At the rate of activities in the region now, Kelly doesn’t anticipate any long-term economic impacts, although that could change depending on how long delays continue.

Kelly also noted the importance of the consultations causing the 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.”

Liam Kelly

“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.”

Two negotiations

Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Murray Rankin said two negotiations are taking place — one directly with Blueberry, the second with the other Treaty 8 nations who have experienced similar impacts to their traditional territories.

“It’s a fundamental decision that requires a fundamental response.”

Murray Rankin

“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.

In a joint statement released this weekend and attributed to Rankin – along with the minister of Energy and the minister of Land, Water and Resource Stewardship – the government said negotiators are working on solutions to address “healing and restoration on the land” and “predictability for industry,” which also ensures Blueberry River First Nations is included “in how natural resources are planned and authorized in their territory.”

The ministers stated, “From the start, our joint focus has been on ensuring we arrive at an agreement that protects Blueberry River First Nations’ Treaty 8 rights and that provides for a sustainable economy with good jobs and opportunity for people in northeastern B.C.”

Finding balance

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

“As with any negotiations, they’re not easy, and it’s a learning process on both sides.”

Trevor Makadahay

“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 [gas basin] is one of the richest in the world.

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.”

Richard Wong

“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.

In the Nov. 26 statement, the ministers of lands, energy, Indigenous relations stated negotiators are “very close to an agreement” and “discussing final issues.” The government has initiated early engagement with select industry groups and other Treaty 8 Nations on a proposed agreement to get feedback and consider adjustments, the statement read.

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, Resolve Energy Solutions, and the Fort St. John Petroleum Association did not provide a comment.

To learn about the information-gathering process Spencer went through to research and write this story, read his OpEd on Energeticcity.ca.