Malahat LNG: When "getting things right" goes wrong

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Originally posted on August 30, 2015 on adamolsen.ca

Steelhead LNG officials said all the right things during the press conference announcing a liquefied natural gas (LNG) project at Bamberton in the Saanich Inlet. Their intention is to build respectful, relationships with their partner, Malahat First Nation, and the surrounding communities.

Since the announcement I have been thinking a lot about their proposal, their roll-out and their words. Not only did they make a verbal commitment, I found it in writing on their website,

"We are honoured to be here today to celebrate our agreements with the Malahat Nation,” said Nigel Kuzemko, CEO, Steelhead LNG. “As a BC-based LNG development company, we are committed to early engagement with First Nations and getting things right. That is why our first step over the past 13 months was to develop a close working relationship with the Malahat Nation based on trust and respect. Our MBA with the Malahat at this early stage of the project is a reflection of our commitment to working with each other and of the relationship we have developed. We look forward to working with the Malahat as we consider the wide range of cultural, environmental, technical, financial and social matters of importance to the Nation, neighbouring First Nations and communities, and BC residents as a whole.”

What is so troubling “at this early stage” is that their promise to “get things right” and their actions are wildly inconsistent.

"Getting things right" would include understanding the incredibly complex relationships between the five W̱SÁNEĆ villages. On this account they have already failed. “Getting it right” would have included researching the current tensions created by the Te’mexw treaty claims over half of the Saanich Peninsula, the hunting and fishing rights of the Douglas Treaty people and the close family connections across the Saanich Inlet.

"Getting things right" would have meant that Malahat community members would have been included in the 13 month courting period and they would have known about the announcement. Had Steelhead lived up to its commitment to “get things right,” I would not have been contacted by family members of concerned Malahat elders who first heard about the project on the news.

"Getting things right" would have meant waiting until the community had a properly elected Chief and Council rather than activating an acting-Chief to deliver the prepared announcement. I am dumbfounded by the decision to proceed with a project announcement without properly elected representatives from Malahat and buy-in from their membership. These are not the actions of a corporation laser-focused on “getting things right.”

The fact that the decision-makers at Steelhead LNG went ahead with the announcement of this project, in light of the swirling controversy around the recent resignation of the entire Chief and Council of Malahat, highlights the actions of a corporation seemingly motivated by self-interest and not one truly wanting to “get things right.”

Steelhead LNG is proposing to pipe, liquefy and transport natural gas to and from the Saanich Inlet. The margin of error in relationship building with First Nations is small, I suspect it resembles the margin of error when working with natural gas. In this case the effort to "get things right," things went horribly wrong.

So where to go from here? It appears that Steelhead LNG, despite their slow start, appear intent on dragging the Saanich Inlet through their process. I have seen it play out many times, proponents propose, opponents oppose, and there is little constructive dialogue in the meantime.

I have highlighted what has gone wrong so far in the Saanich Inlet. In my opinion, the Saanich Inlet is the wrong place for an LNG terminal and my opposition to the project should not be seen as feedback that Steelhead LNG can use to ensure the design of their project is more skookum. But, to be fair I will address how I think community consultations can be better executed in a future blog post.

The process is all about capturing momentum for a project. Proponents do not accept opposition for what it really is, rather they are focused on weathering the initial storm while they get the project past “the early stages” and on track. Once it is moving, it is nearly impossible to stop. 

This confrontational, bet-you-can’t-stop-us approach to community engagement is not healthy for the environment, our social interactions or our economy. More on this later.