Northwest tribes are a growing obstacle to energy development

B.C. tribal members turned down $260K each in order to stop a gas terminal.


On May 13, a tribe in Northern British Columbia turned down a Malaysian energy company’s offer of nearly $260,000 (CAN $319,000) for each member as compensation for building a natural gas export terminal on ancestral lands. The Lax Kw’alaam First Nation said no to the $1.15 billion package after the community unanimously voted against the terminal last week over the risk to local salmon habitat. 

The deal — had it been approved —  would have set a new benchmark for sharing the wealth from energy development on tribal lands. Proponents were calling it a “game-changer” for how native groups could leverage North America’s energy boom. In the past, and still today, tribes have often been sidelined when it comes to energy development on their land. But in rejecting the deal, the Lax Kw’alaam signaled that even huge economic incentives are not enough to win their support for massive fossil fuel projects.

“Hopefully, the public will recognize that unanimous consensus in communities against a project where those communities are offered in excess of a billion dollars, sends an unequivocal message this is not a money issue: This is environmental and cultural,” Garry Reece, the mayor of the town of Lax Kw'alaams, said in a statement announcing the vote. 

The rejection reverberates south of the Canadian border too, where oil and gas companies are running into a growing resistance from tribes worried about their land and livelihood. Much of that opposition centers in the Pacific Northwest, which stands between the landlocked fossil fuel deposits in the U.S. Interior and Asian markets.

Coal loads traveling west down the Columbia River Gorge. Tribes in the Pacific Northwest are asserting treaty rights to stop increased fossil fuel transport through their lands.
Aaron Hockley/Flickr

To get their products to market, energy companies first have to build new terminals and pipelines to move that fuel. They need places to store the scores of oil and coal trains that they plan to run across the Northwest, and right-of-ways to lay new pipelines. And they need permission from the tribes when those projects would cross land protected by treaty rights. But instead of giving their consent, many tribes are resisting new projects, creating a “choke point” in the expansion of North America’s energy industry, says Zoltán Grossman, a Geography and Native Studies professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

For the past three years, the Lummi Nation has waged a fight against the proposed Pacific Gateway Coal Terminal near Bellingham, Washington. They say the terminal would interfere with their tribal fishing rights. In 2012 the Lummi Tribal Council symbolically burned a $1 million check, to make the statement that no amount of company money will convince them to back the project. More recently, leaders from eight other Pacific Northwest tribes and a British Columbia First Nation joined the Lummi in calling for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deny all permits for the project.

“No mitigation can pay for the magnitude of destruction to treaty resources for today and generations from now,” Brian Cladoosby, the chair of the Swinomish Indian Tribe said in a statement. 

Resistance to big energy and mining projects from Native groups is nothing new (tribes have been fighting hydro dams since the 1950s), but their political clout is. That power originated from treaty rights, which the courts have gradually begun recognizing, starting with the landmark 1974 Boldt decision, which determined that the treaties signed with the U.S. government in the 1850s guarantee tribal members have access to their traditional fishing grounds. Those include most of the places where the proposed fuel terminals would be located. 

Empowered by the Boldt decision, other tribes have been asserting their treaty rights to oppose major energy projects as well. 

Washington’s Quinault tribe has spoken out against proposed oil terminals in Gray’s Harbor near Quinault territory, citing threats to tribal fishing sites. In February, a state regulatory board sided with the Quinault by blocking permits for two of the terminals, saying backers have failed to address public safety and environmental issues.

When asked whether a deal like the one offered to the Lax Kw’aalam would be enough to change the tribe’s position, President Fawn Sharp replied in an email that “treaty rights are not for sale.” The ultimate decision, however, would rest on a democratic vote. She added that the tribe is not anti-business but that the long-term environmental threats posed by increased fossil fuel transport trump any short-term economic gains those projects might bring.

“Spills do permanent damage,” she said. “Not all the oil gets cleaned up, no matter how good the effort. That oil affects the habitat, and can make it uninhabitable by fish for decades.”

Across the Cascades, Washington’s Yakama Tribe came out against a proposed coal export facility in eastern Oregon last year, once again citing tribal fishing rights. Yakama protests in conjunction with other regional tribes like the Warm Springs and Nez Perce were a major factor in the Oregon State Department of Lands’ decision to deny the proposal. The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation also joined the Yakama in opposition to the coal project, spurning an $800,000 pay-out in the process. In a vote two years ago, the 57 nations that make up the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians decided to officially oppose all proposals for the transport and export of fossil fuels export in the Northwest. 

Now, as more and more tribes turn to legal challenges and direct action – such as protests and blockades of railroads and major highways – the pressure is turning into a major business cost. New research shows how risky those conflicts are for even big energy corporations with huge resources at their disposal. There’s a bit of irony in that, says Grossman. “We’ve gone from a situation where (tribes) feel powerless to one where companies are very worried that they’re not able to build these terminals.” 

Sarah Tory is an editorial fellow at HCN. 

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