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Blueberry River FN starts new business as drill season freezes

Armed with $65 million awarded following court victory on land claim, small First Nation launches resource company as existing drill operators fear winter shutdown
Natural gas drilling in northeast B.C.’s Montney basin, which overlaps Blueberry First Nation territorial lands | Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers

One year after winning a landmark legal case that gave it $65 million and control over 38,000 square kilometres (14,670 square miles) of B.C.’s nascent natural gas fields and infrastructure, the Blueberry River First Nations (BRFN) has established a new business enterprise, Blueberry River Resources.

The idea is to create economic growth for the community.

The irony is that, while the 200-member Nation is launching a new resource play, existing natural gas producers in the Montney basin, which is subject to the land treaty, are waiting for Blueberry River’s approval so they can drill.

New well licences in the Montney basin, the largest gas field in the province, have been frozen since last year, when the B.C. Supreme Court ruled in favour of a claim from the Blueberry River First Nation that years of natural resource exploration and development had damaged their traditional territory.

The June court ruling gave the province and industry six months to work out an agreement with BRFN. Existing lease holders were allowed to drill but new applicants have to wait for approval.

Most drilling takes place during the winter when the frozen ground allows the movement of heavy equipment.

But, as of September 2022, only 73 new gas well licences had been issued in northeast B.C., compared to 302 at the same time in 2021, according to a report from RBC Capital markets.

As of this November, 60 gas drilling rigs were active in B.C., about the same as two years ago, despite natural gas prices having spiked more than 60 per cent since around $6 per gigajoule.

While negotiations with the Blueberry River First Nation continue, many resource companies fear they will miss the 2022-23 winter drilling season.

BRFN said it would use $35 million provided by the province for land restoration to invest in its new resource business venture.

“We believe the best way to invest this money is through creating a restoration business outside of the nation,” according to statement from the Chief and Council

On October 19, it announced the appointment of outgoing Fort St. John mayor Lori Ackerman as the CEO of Blueberry River Resources.

“We expect this venture to grow quickly and look forward to creating more job opportunities for BRFN members within our nation as well as in the City of Fort St. John,” said BRFN Chief Judy Desjarlais, former president of Top Notch Oilfield Contracting Ltd.

“I am honoured to have this opportunity,” said Ackerman, who began her new role November 1, just one day after chairing her last council meeting as mayor.

In its landmark ruling June 29, 2021, the BC Supreme Court said no natural gas extraction and other development in the area covered by a treaty could proceed without the approval of Blueberry River First Nations.

The province was given six months to work out an arrangement with BRFN to improve provincial land management and permitting processes to recognize and respect BRFN’s treaty rights, but little progress has been made.

The undisputed ruling came into force on January 1, 2022.

In an agreement signed in October 2021, which allowed 195 resource projects to proceed in its territory, the 200-member BRFN was awarded $65 million by the province of B.C., including $35 million for land restoration and “cultural areas.”