PRINCE RUPERT, B.C. - Coastal First Nations have left the federal review of the Northern Gateway pipeline plan, saying they've run out of money and patience.
Executive director Art Sterritt has told the panel the group representing nine aboriginal bands from the B.C. coast and Haida Gwaii has spent more than three times the amount of funding allotted by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency four years ago.
Sterritt said the approximately $280,000 they had cannot compare to the $250 million that Enbridge (TSX:ENB) is spending on the regulatory review process.
"We simply have not been provided with the funding necessary to engage in this process meaningfully or effectively," Sterritt told the panel as hearings resumed in Prince Rupert on Monday.
"This is extremely distressing and disappointing to us, as we have a great deal at stake in these proceedings and in particular this panel."
Sterritt, whose group is opposed to the pipeline that would deliver crude from the Alberta oil sands to a tanker port in Kitimat, left open the possibility of returning to the joint review process in the future.
But there is a funding disparity between those who oppose the project and the deep pockets of Enbridge, he said.
"It seems the only party that can afford this long and extended hearing process is Enbridge itself, and perhaps the Crown. The average citizen can't afford to be here, and certainly the Coastal First Nations can't afford it," Sterritt said.
The group had been scheduled for seven hours to question the Enbridge expert panel giving evidence under oath this week on marine spills and spill response.
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency provided funds for interveners to take part in the review process. Coastal First Nations requested $520,000 for expenses including studies, lawyers and attendance at the hearings since 2009. The board allotted the group $286,000, including $25,000 for legal costs.
By comparison, Sterritt said Northern Gateway has a "battery of lawyers which likely spends more in a day than we have for the whole process."
His group asked for additional money but found out last month the request had been denied.
Enbridge itself provided nearly $13 million to aboriginal groups to take part in the process.
Coastal First Nations confirmed a year ago to The Canadian Press that the group had received $100,000. Individual member bands, including the Wuikinuxv Nation, Heiltsuk, Kitasoo/Xaixais, Nuxalk Nation, Gitga’at, Metlakatla, Old Massett, Skidegate, and Council of the Haida Nation, may also have received funds individually.
Sterritt said the group is also dismayed at the process itself, which is going ahead without necessary scientific studies and with questions remaining unanswered.
"The frustrating nature of this gamesmanship merely serves to compound its inordinate expense," Sterritt said.
He added that since the panel process began, the federal Conservative government has made legislative changes that remove the decision from the panel's purview and put it in the hands of the minister, because "they didn't trust that you would approve this project."
He said Coastal First Nations will continue to monitor the process, which is broadcast live daily on the panel website, and may participate again "as our resources allow."
Panel chairwoman Sheila Leggett encouraged Coastal First Nations to continue participation in the future, if possible.
Some First Nations groups, such as the Carrier-Sekani, refused to get involved from the outset, saying the panel is not a substitute for direct consultation with the federal government on resource and land issues.
Hearings this week focus on the possibility of a marine spill and the company's readiness to respond.
In Ottawa on Monday, Transport Canada tendered a risk assessment for marine spills in Canadian waters. The $1.5-million project "will provide the government and industry with risk information upon which appropriate prevention, preparedness, response, mitigation and recovery measures can be planned," said the request for proposals posted online.
In announcing the study, Transport Minister Denis Lebel said it will look at the possibility of oil and chemical spills on all Canadian coasts, including the Arctic.
"Canada depends on marine shipping for jobs, economic growth and long-term prosperity. While the current system has served Canada well, it is essential that we have a system in place that can meet future needs," Lebel said in a statement.