Occupying the Skeena
July 25, 2018
Don Wesley tells me he's a lucky man. He's a hereditary Chief of the Gitwilgyoots, one of nine allied tribes of the Lax Kw'alaams, a northern coastal B.C. First Nations people. A life lived on the bounty the Skeena River, he says, is a life of plenitude, one that his clan has enjoyed there for 10,000 years. But that very long streak of good luck may soon run out.
In 2015, global fossil fuel giant Petronas offered the roughly 3,600 members of their community $1.15 billion to relinquish claims to ancestral land and waters situated at the mouth of the Skeena River, so that the Malaysian-owned conglomerate could build a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal there. Council members voted on the Petronas offer.
The answer: no, and then hell no. "If they build that [LNG terminal] we will lose everything, the salmon, and everything that comes with them," Wesley says stoically. "It's really the eleventh hour for us."
After Petronas received word of the Lax Kw'alaam vote, the company decided that, from a legal standpoint, there was really no reason to seek collaboration with the tribe. They announced their intention to begin survey work around the estuary of the Skeena. That's when the Lax Kw'alaam began their continuous occupation of Lelu Island, at the mouth of the Skeena, a marathon civil protest now moving into its second year.
"I've never seen that level of courage in my career," says Wild Salmon Center Executive Director Guido Rahr, whose nonprofit organization is supporting Skeena locals, including First Nations, in their opposition to Petronas. "The Skeena has global significance in the fight to save salmon, and it is absolutely the best of the last strongholds in the Pacific. It also represents a rare opportunity to get ahead of the next generation of threats."
It's hard to imagine a more monstrous threat than what Petronas is proposing. Up to 10,000 fracked gas wells in northeastern B.C. would feed a 900-km pipeline, crossing a minimum 1,000 streams, lakes, and rivers, delivering gas to Chatham Sound, where lies the Skeena estuary. The final leg of the pipeline would cross the Sound on a suspension bridge the size of the Golden Gate. That proposed 1.6-km span would connect with a 1.1-km trestle that would require 464 piles (telephone pole-sized logs) to be driven into the sea floor in some of the best remaining salmon-rearing habitat in the world. Lelu Island would be stripped, leveled, and transformed into a massive pipeline-to-ship LNG transfer facility designed to pump huge tankers full of liquefied natural gas—a volatile fuel, with a science-fiction nightmare-scale potential for disaster.
In the event of any LNG tank or tanker ship being punctured, the supercooled liquid would quickly revert to a vapor. And if conditions are right for the gas to pool in the atmosphere rather than dissipate quickly, the slightest spark could cause a massive inferno. In 1944, an LNG explosion in Cleveland incinerated a square mile of the city, destroying 79 homes, killing 131 people, and injuring 225. Risk assessment for the Skeena estuary estimate that a blast zone of nearly a square mile would obliterate every living thing in its path. Explosions and secondary fires would engulf everything within a three-mile radius. Because of the potential for such massive explosions, LNG tankers are an attractive target for terrorists, as the U.S. State Department has noted. Even without such a calamity, Skeena LNG would inevitably be a certain destructive force. The project's footprint, both in terms of infrastructure and carbon budget, would violate standards set by the provincial government. It would also render despondent anyone lucky enough to have fly-fished the Skeena or any of its legendary steelhead tributaries, the Kispiox, Babine, Morice, Sustut, or Bulkley rivers.
Every salmonid that passes up and down the Skeena—including some 300 million juveniles a year—uses its rich estuary in Chatham Sound. An incredible concentration of these fish can be found during migration months at a place called Flora Banks, just off the west coast of Lelu Island, where shallow eelgrass flats that evolved on a remnant glacial-sediment deposit provide a vast, fecund fish nursery. "We found that Flora Banks has roughly 25 times the density of salmonids than the rest of the estuary," says Simon Fraser University biologist Jonathan Moore. "Just as significantly, when we analyzed genes from these fish, we found 50 separate species, mostly of Chinook and sockeye." (Salmon possess the remarkable ability to have their genes individuate to their native tributary streams; a Kispiox steelhead has a genetic signature that's unique and differs from a Morice River chromer, despite the fact that they all enter fresh water at the mouth of the Skeena.) Other research has found that building bridges and docks could upset the delicate balance of push from the flow of the Skeena and pull from ocean currents, causing the complete erosion of the glacial deposit that created Flora Banks.
Greg Knox is the Executive Director of Skeena Wild Conservation Trust, a locally based nonprofit that has been working with First Nations in British Columbia, as well as the Wild Salmon Center, to defeat the LNG proposal. "This is the greatest single threat the Skeena has ever faced," Knox says, recollecting a litany of ill-conceived proposals Skeena Wild has helpedâ€¨defeat, from open sea salmon farming to coalbed methane operations in the headwaters, to the Northern Gateway pipeline, which would have delivered crude oil from Alberta. "Petronas is dedicated to making this terminal a reality, because without it, they've got $6 billion in stranded assets, in the form of frack wells sitting in northeastern British Columbia."
Counting on Canada's newly elected liberal government with its leader, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, points out Knox, would be horribly naive. Though Trudeau talks a mean battle when it comes to environmental protections and First Nations rights, what line he eventually walks on these key issues has yet to be determined. Trudeau has stated that his government grants permits, while only local communities can grant permission, a quaint turn of phrase belied by the actions of Petronas, which has thus far declined to heed locals' majority wish for them to halt their survey work for the construction of the terminal. Meanwhile, Kristy Clark, B.C.'s Premier, is downright skeptical: not of Petronas, but of any salmon scientist with the temerity to publish data that indicate an LNG terminal here would be a colossal fish killer. Many Canadian scientists think she's being spoon-fed a fossil fuel fairy tale.
In Canada, thanks to an overhaul of regulations by a carbon-incumbent majority government, industry gets to write their own environmental assessments, and the one Petronas turned in last April was just what you might expect in the wake of those reforms. One such report claims the LNG terminal can be built at no cost to salmon, a conclusion that prompted 135 scientists to sign a letter calling this study "scientifically flawed." The critique by dissenting scientists noted "errors in logic" that "disregard science not funded by [project] proponents." Petronas's environmental assessment, these scientists concluded, "represents what is wrong with environmental decision-making in Canada."
Locally, the 50,000 citizens of the Skeena watershed, 20,000 of whom are First Nations people, are a long way from granting permission to Petronas. "The community is divided, but the majority doesn't want to see it built," says Knox, citing a poll that Skeena Wild commissioned. "But Trudeau and the provincial government are lying about First Nations support, saying that a majority are in favor of the project." The lies, speculates Knox, likely stem from the barrage of lobbying for the LNG terminal. "We hear from representatives in Ottawa that right now they are getting more visits from lobbyists on this issue than any other."
One constituency Knox would love to hear more from in the effort to defeat LNG in the Skeena is the recreational fishing business. "It's been a little disappointing, to be honest," he says. "One study that we did a few years ago placed the value of salmon runs in the Skeena at $110 million annually. Lodges are a big part of that. And it's in their best interests to protect the fishery they have here."
Not every one in the fly-fishing business is sitting on their hands. Among other bright lights who've been active in protecting the Skeena is Sweetwater Travel's Jeff Vermillion.
He runs a Sweetwater Lodge situated up the Sustut River, a remote Skeena tributary, appropriately named Steelhead Valhalla. "As far as the effort to save the Skeena, there's nobody I have greater faith in than the First Nations people of British Columbia," says Vermillion. The fish are part of their culture, their religion, their pride, and their subsistence." But staving off the hydrocarbon wolves, as he sees it, is something of a sideline to the real fight. "This is an exceptionally poorly managed fishery, but that's not something that's happened at the local level. It's at the Provincial and Canadian National government level that we have a problem. We are so far away from Ottawa out here on the coast it's hard to get anyone there to care."
As reports of relentless lobbying on behalf of a Skeena-killing LNG terminal would indicate, the problem isn't so much geographical as political. At the highest levels of government, fossil fuel shills have been granted unfettered access, while no one speaking for fish can even get a foot in the door. Truth-telling is relegated to a local concern. Sometimes, the true concerns of other fisherman can be painful to witness.
"We've been out on the water, watching Petronas's drill boats," Wesley says of the survey work already being done in anticipation of approval for the terminal. "And we've seen that one of the recreational fishing lodges has leased some of their boats to the drill company. It makes you wonder if they know how lucky they are to have this place. But what bothers me more is their silence."
Steven Hawley is the author of Recovering a Lost River (Beacon Press, 2011) and Cracked: Fixing a DamNation One River at a Time. (Forthcoming Patagonia Books). He grew up fishing the Sandy, Clackamas, and Deschutes rivers and enjoys introducing his own kids to these beautiful local rivers. He lives in Hood River, Oregon.