OTTAWA (Reuters) – Canada’s top court on Wednesday handed aboriginals a partial victory on the need to be consulted on resource projects, throwing out permits to conduct seismic testing for oil and gas in the north but dismissing a separate attempt to quash changes to an Enbridge Inc pipeline.
In the two separate but related cases, the Supreme Court found that while the Canadian government holds ultimate responsibility for ensuring consultations with First Nations are adequate, it can rely on the national energy regulator’s process to fulfill that in oil- and gas-related matters.
The decisions were closely watched for their clarification of the government’s duty to consult with First Nations at a time when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to build a stronger relationship with aboriginals.
The rulings are, however, unlikely to have impact on large projects that are ultimately decided by the prime minister’s cabinet, said Nigel Bankes, professor at the University of Calgary, as both cases involved permits where the National Energy Board (NEB) had final say.
The government faces aboriginal opposition to Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which Trudeau’s Liberals approved last year.
In the case of plans by a Norwegian consortium to conduct seismic testing in Baffin Bay and Davis Strait, a preparatory step in oil and gas exploration, consultation with the Inuit that hunt nearby was inadequate in a number of ways, the court found, overturning the NEB’s approval of the project.
The consortium includes Petroleum Geo-Services Inc and TGS-Nopec Geophysical Co ASA.
Among other things, the Inuit were given limited opportunities for participation and there was no assessment of the project’s impact on their rights to hunt, the court said in a unanimous decision.
In the second case, the court found consultation with the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation on changes to Enbridge’s Line 9 pipeline was “manifestly adequate.”
The line runs between Ontario and Montreal, through what the Chippewas regard as their traditional territory. They had sought to have approval of the changes overturned.
The changes reversed the flow of oil in a section of the line and increased its capacity to 300,000 barrels a day. Virtually all of the required construction occurred on lands owned by Enbridge and on their right of way.
Enbridge said it “appreciates and respects” the court’s decision and is committed to fostering a strengthened relationship with the Chippewas and all First Nations.
Reporting by Leah Schnurr; Editing by Bill Rigby and Steve Orlofsky