Skeena Estuary

Skeena Estuary

Lelu Island and the adjacent underwater region known as Flora Bank lie at the mouth of the Skeena River, one of North America’s great salmon superhighways. Flora Bank contains the highest abundances (25 times more) of juvenile salmon compared with all other sampled habitat in the Skeena River estuary. It is considered the most critical salmon-rearing habitat on the west coast of Canada, its fertile eelgrass flats provide food and cover for up to a billion juvenile Pacific salmon and steelhead as they acclimate to the saltwater environment each year.

So what's the problem?
Lelu Island was also the proposed site for the Malaysian state-owned Petronas' Pacific Northwest LNG (PNW LNG) project. The liquefied natural gas facility, offloading facility and associated pipeline proposed to remove 1.3 million cubic yards of marine material, causing nearly 500 acres of habitat loss and destabilization on Flora Bank. It doesn’t look any better from a regional or global scale, either. It would create a 20% increase in British Columbia’s greenhouse gas emissions and become the largest greenhouse gas polluter in Canada. Upstream, the gas would be extracted through fracking, using more than five million cubic yards of water (equivalent to 1,529 Olympic sized swimming pools) by 2030 and producing 8.5 million tons of greenhouse gases per year (equivalent to 1,795,485 passenger vehicles driven for one year). Downstream, the end use of gas from the project would emit 55 million tons of CO2 emissions, equivalent to over 53 billion pounds of coal burned. Despite the lack of adequate consultation with First Nations from across the region and passionate opposition, the federal government approved PNW LNG on Sept 27, 2016.

Until conditional approval was granted in late 2016, SkeenaWild was heavily involved in the Canadian Environmental Assessment process and conducted independent scientific studies and literature reviews. 

On Oct. 27, 2016, SkeenaWild and two First Nations legally challenged the decision to approve the project. In January, 2017, The Gitxan Hereditary cheifs also launch a legal challenge. The Gitanyow, Gitxsan, and Gitwilgyoots challenged the aboriginal consultation process, building on the Northern Gateway pipeline case in British Columbia, where the Court of Appeals ruled that the government of Canada had not properly consulted with nor accommodated First Nations, invalidating the federal approval certificate. SkeenaWild's case challenged the environmental assessment, arguing that it ignored independent, peer-reviewed science on salmon and salmon behavior in favor of the project proponent’s science.

In another case, a local citizen, Michael Sawyer challenged the upstream gas pipeline approval process, which he won on July 20, 2017.

UPDATE! On July 25, 2017, Petronas cancelled their project proposed for Lelu Island, citing poor macro market conditions as the reason for pulling out.

What's next?
PNW LNG’s cancellation has opened up the space to begin working towards permanent protection for Flora Bank, and other critical salmon habitat in the Skeena estuary. Our first priority is making sure Petronas and its partners never use, sell or transfer their permits for Lelu Island.

We are urging the federal government to implement a process for assessing Flora Bank for permanent protection status, and commit to an estuary management planning process for the Skeena estuary - the only industrialized estuary in Canada without an estuary management plan. We want to ensure this is a science-based, transparent, robust process, and are therefore asking for a Regional Impact Assessment under the new federal environmental assessment legislation. We are currently working with our legal team at the Centre for Environmental Law & Litigation (CELL), the Gitanyow, Gitwilgyoots tribe, and others to achieve the best possible outcomes.

More information on SkeenaWild's Legal case
SkeenaWild's case argued that the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency failed to properly assess and report on the project’s impacts on fish and fish habitat. The project could permanently destroy almost 35,000 m2 of crucial salmon habitat. The proponent plans to apply for habitat offsets from DFO to offset this habitat destruction by creating “new” eelgrass habitat and other forms of fish habitat in other locations, despite the Agency explicitly recognizing that there is uncertainty regarding the effectiveness of the proposed mitigation measures.

We also challenge the Agency’s failure to do a cumulative effects assessment associated with the project’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In the Agency’s draft environmental assessment report, they admit that if built, this project will be one of the largest point-source emitters of GHGs in Canada, and will be a significant obstacle to Canada meeting GHG reduction obligations under the Paris Agreement.

The lawsuit also targets determinations made by the Minister of Environment and Climate Change and the federal Cabinet approving the project. We contend that if the Agency’s report is invalid, then the approvals are invalid as well.

More information on Gitwilgyoots Case
The Gitwilgyoots tribe of the Tsimshian First Nation is the aboriginal group on whose traditional territory the project is being proposed. Gitwilgyoots are arguing that they were not properly consulted by the federal government, who instead chose to consult with the Lax Kw’alaams Band Council. Precedence in Canadian law states the hereditary leadership and membership of the affected First Nations are the people who need to be consulted, not those elected under the federal Indian Act (Band), which only have jurisdiction over the geographically small reserve lands. Gitwilgyoots membership made it clear to the federal government that the Lax Kw’alaams Band does not speak for them or represent them on this matter, and made repeated requests to the federal government for consultation. The federal government never undertook an assessment of the Gitwilgyoots right to be consulted (strength of claim). The federal government denied Gitwilgyoots meaningful consultation and ignored the Tribes concerns over the impacts of the project.

More information on Gitanyow and Gitsxan Cases
Due to the projects location, overtop of habitat critical to all Skeena salmon, upriver aboriginal groups such as Gitanyow and Gitsxan could be seriously impacted. Their salmon (constitutionally protected food) require the habitat on and around Flora Bank for their health and survival. The Gitanyow made repeated requests to the federal government to be consulted on the project going back to 2013. The federal government repeatedly denied Gitanyow’s requests, stating that because Gitanyow traditional territory was outside the area proposed for development, they did not need to be consulted. More recently, the federal government acknowledged that they needed to consult with Gitanyow, however, this consultation was limited and very late in the environmental assessment process. Gitanyow is arguing that this was inadequate, and the process to define how they needed to be consulted (strength of claim) was never undertaken by the federal government.

More information on Michael Sawyers Case
Smithers, B.C. resident, Michael Sawyer, spent roughly 23 years in Alberta’s oil and gas industry — much of it conducting pipeline environmental impact assessments. He believed that there was a missed step in the Pacific Northwest LNG’s approval process, so he went to court with financial help from West Coast Environmental Law and SkeenaWild — and won a July 20 ruling forcing the plant’s gas pipeline to get a National Energy Board review. His case argued that the Prince Rupert Gas Transmission Project, a roughly 900-kilometre proposed pipeline from Hudson's Hope, B.C., to a facility on the province's Lelu Island, required federal and not provincial approvals. The province had already green lighted the pipeline project, but was waiting to receive a final commitment from Pacific NorthWest LNG.