Northeast projects languish in consultation limbo

Written By Rob Shaw

Oil and gas companies are increasingly leaving northeastern B.C. as the government struggles to manage enormous permitting delays and other real-world consequences of a landmark First Nations court decision, says the region’s MLA.

Mike Bernier said he’s regularly fielding complaints from residents, farmers and corporations caught up in the uncertainty of a provincial pause on natural resource permits stemming from the 2021 B.C. Supreme Court ruling that the government infringed upon the Treaty 8 rights of the Blueberry River First Nations.

“Nobody is making any damn decisions after the Blueberry court decision.”

Mike Bernier

“It’s really about the frustration in the region — work that’s drying up, money that’s going to Alberta, companies that are losing business, and now farmers losing revenue. All because nobody is making any damn decisions after the Blueberry court decision,” said Bernier, the BC Liberal MLA for Peace River South.

Lots of finger-pointing

“Everybody is still kind of pointing fingers at each other.”

The NDP government and Blueberry River struck a deal after the court decision in October 2021 that allowed 195 forestry, oil and gas projects with prior permits to proceed, and promised to “finalize an interim approach for reviewing new natural resources activities that balance Treaty 8 rights, the economy and the environment.”

It still hasn’t happened.

“Negotiations are advancing and we hope to have more to say about this soon,” said a statement from the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation.

Extraordinary delays

In the meantime, a year later, northerners are facing extraordinary delays as the B.C. government embarks on lengthy and complicated consultations on permits that often result in limbo for the applicants.

“I know of over $2.5 billion in 2022/23 construction season that’s been cancelled … and moved to Alberta.”

Mike Bernier

“I know of over $2.5 billion in 2022/23 construction season that’s been cancelled in my region for oil and gas drilling activity and moved to Alberta because the shareholder said we can’t wait any longer for a decision,” he said.

“I’ve got so many projects up here where the rigs are actually moving out of the region.”

One company finished drilling a new natural gas well under an approved permit only to get caught up in consultation delays to get the permit to tie it in, said Bernier.

A farmer north of Dawson Creek who had been for years selling excess water from a dugout to an oil and gas company drilling in his area has now suddenly been waiting six months for a decision on that same water licence, with no end in sight.

He’s about to lose the $100,000 contract to provide water from his own land to a company drilling on and around his private property, said Bernier.

First Nations consultation

“He’s been selling it all along for 10 to 12 years but this time he goes to apply for the permit and now it’s on hold pending First Nations consultation,” said Bernier.

“It’s private property. It’s something he’s done every year. It’s not Crown land. People applying for permits even on private property are now having to go through First Nations consultation.”

“He’s pissed,” added Bernier, noting now the oil and gas company will have to hire a truck to transport water from Dawson Creek or Alberta, producing unnecessary pollution and adding costs.

“These are the things the NDP and government don’t talk about,” he said.

Energy Minister Bruce Ralston would not agree to an interview. 

All water, even on private property, is owned by the Crown and requires a licence or approval.

BC Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation

But a statement from his ministry said all water, even on private property, is owned by the Crown and requires a licence or approval — and those now require First Nations consultation.

“As an agent of the Crown, the BC Oil and Gas Commission is responsible for making certain decisions regarding water use,” read the statement.

“In doing so, it recognizes existing legal and constitutionally recognized rights and responsibilities, including responsibilities under current water licensing, and fulfilling the duty of the Crown to consult with Indigenous nations.”

The 2021 court ruling found that the cumulative impacts of natural resource development projects approved by the government in Blueberry River First Nations territory had interfered with the nation’s ability to exercise Treaty 8 hunting rights. 

Ripple effects

The ripple effects, including a reduction in the moose harvest for resident B.C. hunters this past spring, have resulted in much controversy and led to a threat against Blueberry River First Nations Chief Judy Desjarlais earlier this year.

Tensions remain high.

“It’s put the fear of god, I guess, into the government where it has thought, ‘Well now we can’t do anything,’” said Bernier.

Another case involves a grazing pasture on Crown land that a family has leased for three generations and put more than $1 million of improvements into. When they went to renew their lease this year, for the first time, it was suddenly put on hold.

“The answer was they have to confirm with First Nations that they might not want to use this land for future opportunities for First Nations,” said Bernier.

The fear, said Bernier, is the uncertainty. Northern residents building or permitting on their own private property aren’t even sure if they’ll be subject to delays or rejection.

“I was always under the impression if it was private property, it wouldn’t be impacted. Now that’s not the case.”

Mike Bernier

“I was always under the impression if it was private property, it wouldn’t be impacted,” he said.

“Now that’s not the case. This government is putting pauses on private land.”

The government has recently approved some oil and gas activities on private land, but admits, things are not clear.

“We are in a new decision-making framework for applications,” read the ministry statement. “The province continues critical work to provide clarity following the court decision.”

In the meantime, an entire region of the province simply waits.