British Columbia

Why Coastal GasLink says it rejected a pipeline route endorsed by Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs

Before construction of the controversial Coastal GasLink pipeline started, hereditary chiefs with the Office of the Wet'suwet'en proposed an alternate route through their territory. The company behind the project said the path wasn't feasible and moved forward without the chiefs' support.

Alternate route was too costly and posed greater environmental risks, company says

In January, RCMP enforced an injunction, ordering people to stop preventing Coastal GasLink workers from accessing a road and bridge in northern B.C. A second round of injunction enforcement occurred earlier this month. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

As rallies spring up across Canada to support Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs fighting the Coastal GasLink pipeline in northern B.C., an increasing number of people are wondering: Why doesn't the company use an alternate route to avoid opposition?

Former NDP MP Nathan Cullen raised the idea several times when he was still an elected representative for the region. More recently, Green Party MP Paul Manly returned from a January visit to the region with the idea — one he said came from the hereditary chiefs themselves.

"The Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs provided alternative routes to Coastal GasLink that would have been acceptable to them as a pipeline corridor," he said in a statement last month.

"Coastal GasLink decided that it did not want to take those acceptable options and instead insisted on a route that drives the pipeline through ecologically pristine and culturally important areas."

The $6-billion, 670-kilometre Coastal GasLink pipeline would move natural gas from near Dawson Creek, in northeastern B.C., to a coastal LNG Canada export terminal in Kitimat. It is a key component of a $40-billion project announced by the federal and provincial governments last fall.

Manly's statement has since gone viral, but little about the alternate path proposed by the hereditary chiefs has been reported. Here is what CBC has learned about that route, and the reasons given for its rejection.

Coastal GasLink's selection process

In an interview with reporters on Jan. 27, Coastal GasLink president David Pfeiffer was asked why the company wouldn't move the pipeline's path in order to avoid conflict.

"We spent many years assessing multiple routes through the Wet'suwet'en Territory, about six years," Pfeiffer said. "The current route was selected as the most technically viable and one that minimized impact to the environment."

Construction work on the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline is underway along the Morice Forest Service Road, near Smithers, B.C. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

He said the company explored multiple alternative routes after getting feedback from local First Nations and Indigenous leaders, including the Office of the Wet'suwet'en, a non-profit governed by Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs and used to manage lands and resources throughout their territory.

On its website, Coastal GasLink provides a timeline of its route selection process, including a decision to use the "South of Houston" alternate route, which redirects one portion of the pipeline approximately 3.5 kilometres south of the original path.

The company says the detour was selected after receiving feedback from Indigenous groups in the area.

The Wet'suwet'en alternative

During the planning stages of the pipeline, the Office of the Wet'suwet'en presented Coastal GasLink with an alternate route through its territory referred to as "The McDonnell Lake route."

According to Mike Ridsdale, the Office of the Wet'suwet'en's environmental assessment co-ordinator, that route would have followed a path through Wet'suwet'en territory eyed for use by Pacific Northern Gas for an expansion and looping project.

Manly has confirmed this is the route he was referencing in his statement. 

The Coastal GasLink pipeline route from Burns Lake to Kitimat passes through Wet'suwet'en territory. (Coastal GasLink)
The rejected McDonnell Lake route would also run through Wet'suwet'en territory, but would pass farther north, toward Smithers. Mike Ridsdale of the Office of the Wet'suwet'en said Pacific Northern Gas has considered the route for its own pipeline project, depicted in purple. (Pacific Northern Gas/B.C. Oil and Gas Commission)

Ridsdale said the route follows "already heavily disturbed areas along the Highway 16 corridor, and away from highly known cultural areas, as well as away from the Skeena headwaters of salmon spawning areas that the Wet'suwet'en rely on."

Why it was rejected

In a letter provided to CBC by the Office of Wet'swuwet'en, Coastal GasLink says it explored the possibility of using the McDonnell Lake route through aerial and computer reviews, and by meeting with representatives of Pacific Northern Gas.

The letter — dated Aug. 21, 2014 — also outlines reasons Coastal GasLink rejected the route, including:

  • It would increase the pipeline's length by as much as 89 kilometres, upping both the environmental impact and as much as $800 million in capital costs.
     
  • The pipeline's diameter, at 48 inches (121 cm), is too large to safely be installed along the route. (Pacific Northern's pipeline is between 10 and 12 inches (25-30 cm), and the proposed upgrade would be 24 inches or 60 cm.)
     
  • The McDonnell Lake route would be closer to the urban B.C. communities of Smithers, Houston, Terrace and Kitimat.
     
  • Re-routing the pipeline would impact an additional four First Nations who had not already been consulted by Coastal GasLink, which would add up to one year of delays to the construction process.

"From our perspective, the route was not feasible on the basis of those significant environmental and technical issues and therefore route examination ceased," said Coastal GasLink spokesperson Terry Cunha in a followup email to CBC.

RCMP are seen pulling an arrestee during the enforcement of a court injunction on behalf of Coastal Gaslink on Saturday, Feb. 8. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

Those same reasons were laid out in the B.C. Supreme Court injunction issued Dec. 31, 2019, which allowed Coastal GasLink to proceed with construction of the pipeline.

In a 2014 submission to Coastal GasLink and B.C.'s Environmental Assessment Office, the Office of the Wet'suwet'en cites Coastal GasLink's rejection of the McDonnell Lake route as a sign the company is unwilling to work with the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs.

Other proposed routes

Ridsdale said the Office of the Wet'suwet'en also proposed a second route, known as the Kemano, because then the pipeline would have travelled through an area already damaged by flooding from the Rio Tinto Alcan project

He also said the route ultimately selected by Coastal GasLink travels a portion of terrain known as the "Icy Pass route," and provided documentation from another pipeline company rejecting the Icy Pass route because of the high risk of erosion, slides and the need to construct numerous new access roads.

There is no mention of the Kemano or Icy Pass routes in either the 2014 submission from the Office of the Wet'suwet'en, nor in the B.C. Supreme Court injunction.

In that same 2014 letter, which Coastal GasLink has now published on its website, the company suggested using a "Morice River North" alternate route for approximately 55 km of the pipeline, which it said would take construction three to five kilometres away from the Unist'ot'en healing centre established by the hereditary chiefs in 2015.

In a statement posted on its website, Coastal GasLink said it never received a response to this offer, nor to any other aspects of the letter.

The Office of the Wet'suwet'en also did not respond to CBC's query asking for a response to Coastal GasLink's reasoning for rejecting the McDonnell Lake route.

"The route that has been selected reflects the best engineering, environmental, cultural and economically feasible criteria possible" Coastal GasLink said in an emailed statement to CBC.  

"There is no route available to CGL that would avoid traditional Wet'suwet'en territory.… To change the route to avoid Wet'suwet'en territory at this date would require major environmental assessment work, which would not be feasible under the timelines to which we have committed."

About the Author

Andrew Kurjata

CBC Prince George | @akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is an award-winning journalist covering Northern British Columbia for CBC Radio and cbc.ca, situated in unceded Lheidli T'enneh territory in Prince George. You can email him at andrew.kurjata@cbc.ca.