After decades of being treated as collateral damage by policy-makers and industry bent on resource extraction, the Blueberry River First Nations will have significantly more say in how extraction proceeds within its territories thanks to a watershed agreement with the British Columbia government. But the deal also means the resumption of fracking, a fossil gas process fraught with environmental harms—for the region and far beyond.
Years in the making, the Blueberry River First Nations (BRFN) Implementation Agreement comes 18 months after the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that the cumulative impacts of the province’s long and “aggressive” support for resource extraction on the Nations’ lands breached their right under Treaty 8 to use their territories for hunting, fishing, and cultural activities.
The agreement assures a C$200-million restoration fund by June 2025 to support the healing of the land. An additional $87.5 million will be paid “as a financial package over three years, with an opportunity for increased benefits based on petroleum and natural gas (PNG) revenue-sharing and provincial royalty revenues in the next two fiscal years.”
It also guarantees limits on new development, protecting more than 650,000 hectares of land from PNG and forestry activities.
And it fills the negotiation void that existed before, which served to turn the territory into what The Narwhal describes as “industrial wasteland.”
“The agreement charts a path forward from a past where the province excluded the community from resource decisions and infringed on the nation’s constitutionally protected rights,” The Narwhal writes. Two days after signing its agreement with BRFN in mid-January, B.C. inked similar deals with the four other Treaty 8 nations in the region: Doig River, Halfway River, Saulteau, and Fort Nelson. “Collectively, the agreements represent a way out of conflict and a shared goal to heal the land.”
“This is a new way of building relationships and the first step into reconciliation,” Blueberry River First Nations Chief Judy Desjarlais said at a press conference following the announcement of the agreement.
The deal has left stakeholders from extraction industries celebrating in step with the BRFN. Fossil gas projects stalled by the courts can now proceed, they say, with regulatory certainty sweetening the pot for prospective investors.
But what proves sweet for investors stands to leave a bitter aftertaste for BRFN and the planet. Fossil giants like Malaysia-based Petronas and homegrown Tourmaline Oil may find their surface footprints contained by the agreement, but there is little to hold them back from extending their reach underground.
The BRFN’s 38,300-square-kilometre territory sits atop the 130,000 square-kilometre Montney Shale formation straddling the B.C.-Alberta border. The Montney play contains enough shale gas to last the country 140 years, reports CBC News.
“While it’s not clear how quickly that will all be tapped, there are already tens of thousands of wells in the area and the annual reports of companies active in the area—and data from the B.C. Energy Regulator—reveal plans for thousands more.”
Such plans fly in the face of the large and expert consensus that new fossil development anywhere on Earth is incompatible with holding global heating to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
As Canada’s “largest potential source of greenhouse gas emissions and the sixth-largest in the world,” the Montney is considered a “carbon bomb,” writes CBC, citing research published last year in the journal Energy Policy. Tapping and burning the estimated 449 trillion cubic feet of fossil gas in the Montney would generate 13.7 billion tonnes of emissions, “about 19 times Canada’s total emissions from all sources in 2019.”
The Power to Say ‘No’
The Crown “really strongly believed” that it had the right to tap this resource-heavy land, as long as it consulted with First Nations, BRFN legal counsel Maegen Giltrow told The Narwhal in June, 2021, when the court ruled in favour of BRFN’s claim that industrial development had cost them their way of life.
The province argued it had fulfilled its duty to consult before green-lighting projects. “But the court noted that consultation never resulted in a no… It always resulted in approval,” Giltrow said.
Celebrating the more recent agreement, BRFN chief Judy Desjarlais described the old process as “business as usual.”
“We were just a check mark on a little box that said, ‘Yep, we’ve engaged with First Nations,’ and ‘Yep, we’ve done our due diligence’,” Desjarlais said, according to Northern Beat.
And the ecosystem impacts that followed, were, in her words, “decimation.”
In 2015, the BRFN acted to stop this widespread destruction by filing a civil lawsuit against the British Columbia government. The following year it submitted [pdf] an Atlas of Cumulative Landscape Disturbance as evidence: a report documenting the extent of oil and gas activity, hydropower, forestry, mining, transmission lines, seismic lines, roads, agriculture, and wind power activities across its traditional territories. According to the report, 73% of the Nations’ territory was within 250 metres of an industrial disturbance, 84% was within 500 metres, and remaining intact forest covered only 14% of the territory.
Oil and gas development had imposed a large footprint on the region, with the report finding that “since January 1, 2013, the government of British Columbia has authorized construction in Blueberry River First Nations traditional territory of more than 2,600 oil and gas wells, 1,884 kilometres of petroleum access and permanent roads, 740 kilometres of petroleum development roads, 1,500 kilometres of new pipelines, and 9,400 kilometres of seismic lines.” The report also pointed out the harms that such development posed for wildlife, especially deer and caribou.
Seven years later, the watershed agreement mandates a “partnership approach” to resource stewardship in the area. It will prioritize restoration and protection of wildlife habitat, as well as protection of remaining old growth forest and traplines.
“B.C. and Blueberry River will determine together where certain activities can occur, and under what expectations or requirements, and where they will be avoided in the future,” states a government news release. “Companies, the Province, Blueberry River, and other Nations will sit together to discuss, design, and agree to development plans.”
“There’s no longer ‘business as usual’ when it comes to doing projects within our territory,” Desjarlais said. Asked by CBC News whether the agreement gives the BRFN “the power to say no” if a gas company “wants a permit and the project is not in line with Blueberry River’s restoration goals,” she said: “[After] reviewing the process… where it’s at, which claim area it’s in… what’s the risk, the footprint that it’s going to leave… Yes, we do.”
Good News for Biodiversity
The agreement’s move to protect more than 650,000 hectares of BRFN territory from further fossil and forestry activity will also serve to advance B.C.’s 30% land protections goal by 2030, a pledge welcomed by conservation groups.
“Northeastern British Columbia has been significantly impacted by resource extraction and we are optimistic this agreement will help prevent and reverse biodiversity loss through improved land use planning and restoration,” said Meaghen McCord, executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s B.C. chapter.
It is also “huge for the boreal forest in northeast B.C.,” Wilderness Committee climate campaigner Peter McCartney told The Narwhal, commenting on a pledge to reduce the annual allowable timber cut in the region by around 350,000 cubic metres annually, and to end the use of aerial herbicides.
“The Blueberry River First Nations and all the Treaty 8 nations have our utmost gratitude for the work that they have done to get to this point where we can start healing the land and restoring the ecosystems that have been so heavily damaged,” McCartney said.
Government, Fossil Industry Celebrate
The agreement was “the right thing to do,” said B.C. Minister of Land, Water, and Resource Stewardship Nathan Cullen. “We’ve never, never regretted expanding or enshrining rights to people.”
But it was the B.C. government’s poor track record on treaty rights that brought about a court case and the ensuing agreement in the first place. And even now, it may turn out that the BRFN, ignored and disrespected for decades by stakeholders, will need a stronger acknowledgement of their rights than the agreement appears to furnish.
Presented by the B.C. government as a guarantee that BRFN can “meaningfully exercise their Treaty 8 rights,” the agreement is also meant to provide “stability and predictability for industry in the region.” Oil and gas producers are pleased with this provision.
Lisa Baiton, president and CEO of Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, praised the efforts of the province and the BRFN as “diligent” and the agreement as a “positive step forward”. Now, she said, her organization and its members are “focused on gaining an understanding of the details within the agreement to chart a path forward, which enables the responsible development of B.C.’s rich natural resources in a way that ensures mutual benefits for industry, Indigenous Nations, and British Columbians across the province.”
Izwan Ismail, CEO of Petronas Energy Canada, which owns a 25% share in the LNG Canada liquefied natural gas megaproject, said the agreement was good news for all. “It is our expectation that the necessary work can now proceed to ensure that the gas Petronas Canada delivers to the LNG Canada project is responsibly produced right here in B.C., benefiting the entire province and country.”
A Pathway for the Next Generation
In her comments after the agreement was announced, Chief Desjarlais recalled the “heartbreak and sadness” expressed by her grandmother when she reflected on the extent to which industrial development had destroyed BRFN territories, taking away moose habitat, spawning channels, and access to traplines, and decimating a way of life.
“Now, we can preserve and restore those areas. We may not see it right now, but we’re going to see down the road, where they’ll be restored with a better plan in place,” she said.
Longtime BRFN councillor Sherry Dominic said that while restoration will take a very long time, “at least we set the pathway for the next generation. So they’ll know, ‘OK, this is where we’re going, this is what we’re doing.’”
Desjarlais also said she intends for her community to be direct beneficiaries of resource development, breaking with decades of having “our people… our standards overlooked.”
She added: “We are living in poor conditions. We’re still driving on gravel roads. We’re still… facing housing issues in terms of mould… water issues.”
While BRFN is hoping to finally secure economic benefits from resource extraction, questions remain about the ongoing impact of fracking on Indigenous land and water. Speaking with CBC News, Blueberry River Elder Jerry Davis recalled the “happy days” before fracking made the waterway and its tributaries undrinkable. He pointed to sick patches of degraded forest, and to berry bushes which he said no longer bear fruit due to air pollution.
Some locals believe the notoriously water-intensive fracking process is behind the recent unprecedented drying up of local waterways. “Obviously there’s a big concern about water and the lack of water,” said BRFN councillor Wayne Yahey.
The Elephant in the Room
In a press conference following the signing of the Blueberry River Implementation Agreement in Prince George, B.C. Premier David Eby said the oil and gas industry would need to be “innovative” in its search to “find ways to work with less land disturbance.”
He added: “The agreement is not a cap on production, it’s a cap on land disturbance.” This and Eby’s other comments heralding “predictability for the region and local economy,” signal that alongside “operating on the land in partnership to ensure sustainability for future generations,” there will be a return to business as usual for the extraction industry, which has a great deal of drilling to catch up on.
Fossil industry newsletter JWN Energy reports that the B.C. Energy Regulator, sensing that a deal was “imminent,” approved 308 well licences in the area between last August and January 18. Between January 19—the day after the agreement was signed—and February 23, it approved a whopping 239 more.
And the “cap on land disturbance” isn’t all-encompassing. Oil companies will be required to “limit any new disturbances to half the sector’s previous footprint,” writes CBC.
There is also the potential for considerable expansion within its current footprint. Each existing well pad in the Montney could hold “quadruple” the number of present wells, according to a 2021 study published in the Journal of Geoscience and Environmental Protection.
Praising multi-well pads as the path to “increase efficiency, reduce costs, and minimize [surface] environmental footprint”, a 2018 post in Energy Investing News forecast a “significant” expansion in the “multi-well pad market” by 2025, with six well pads being the “sweet spot.”
Whatever their surface footprint, new investments in fossil fuel projects with decades-long timelines amount to a perilous bet against humanity’s capacity to act swiftly to restrain global heating, said Kjell Kühne, lead author of last year’s Energy Policy paper on “carbon bombs.” Kühne is also the director of the Germany-based Leave It in the Ground Initiative.
“You are basically betting on humanity continuing to burn down the house at the same rate in order for you to make money, and that is a very risky bet,” Kühne told CBC.
And betting on the Montney is particularly ill-advised because much of the gas it contains can only be extracted through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a process linked with the unregulated and typically unmonitored fugitive release of methane gas. Possessing 83 times the global heating power of carbon dioxide during its first 20 years in the atmosphere, methane has emerged as an essential, top priority for short-term emission reductions.
But fossil executives, like Tourmaline President and CEO Michael Rose, tout fossil gas as a boon. Offering his own praise for the Blueberry River Implementation Agreement, which he described as a “new framework for oil and gas development,” Rose said that “providing low-emission Canadian natural gas to the world is one of the best things we can do for the global atmosphere and the overall Canadian economy.”