TERRACE, B.C. - The proponent and opponents of the Northern Gateway pipeline will make their final pitches to a federal review panel starting Monday, at the last stage of public hearings before the panel issues its decision later this year.
Calgary-based Enbridge (TSX:ENB) is slated to be the first to officially present its final argument for its project at the hearings, but opponents made their case at a public rally Sunday in Terrace, B.C., a scenic northern city whose council passed a resolution last year opposing the project.
Eric Laitinen drove from Kitimat, the would-be home of the Northern Gateway tanker terminal, to join the crowd of about 200 gathered in a downtown park.
"I've been working in the oil industry for a long time, and I know that if a pipeline breaks, this area's fisheries and everything is gone," said the retired 71-year-old.
"Not an oil pipeline. A gas pipeline is fine, because leaks there don't destroy the rivers or lakes or anything."
The project proposed by Enbridge involves two 1,200-kilometre pipelines linking Bruderheim, just outside of Edmonton, to the marine terminal in Kitimat. One pipe would carry diluted bitumen, the heavy, molasses-like oil produced in the oil sands, and the other would carry natural gas condensate, used to dilute bitumen, from Kitimat east to Alberta.
"I think, in the grand scheme of things, we have no right to destroy the environment for the children that are coming up," said Terry Walker, 63, a day-care supervisor in Terrace.
She said her community will be directly affected if there is a pipeline spill.
"This pipeline has no part in our future," she said as she soaked up the heat of a rare 27C day.
"It's a disaster in the making," Art Sterritt, executive director of the Coastal First Nations, told the crowd. "Coastal First Nations remains 100 per cent opposed to this and we will lay down our lives to stop this."
Coastal First Nations left the review panel process earlier this year, saying they were out of patience and faith that the federal government was listening.
The province of British Columbia is also slated to address the panel, most likely on Monday, after announcing late last month that it believes the project cannot go ahead as proposed.
In a written argument filed with the federal panel, lawyers for the B.C. government said that Northern Gateway should not be approved.
"'Trust me' is not good enough in this case," said the submission.
But the submission left the door open, and at a much-watched meeting with her Alberta counterpart on Friday, B.C. Premier Christy Clark invited project supporters to walk through.
"Between the closing arguments (at the National Energy Board's joint-review panel) and the decision, there are a few more months," Clark said.
"So we'll see what happens with that."
The province has laid out five conditions that must be met to win its support, including undefined "world-class" oil spill response plans and a "fair share" of the economic benefits.
Sterritt urged the crowd to applaud B.C.'s Liberal government for opposing the project, but Robin Austin, a local New Democrat member of the legislature, said the opponents of the project cannot count on the province.
"If you look at the wording of the five conditions there's lots of wiggle room there," he said. "It's not a definitive 'No' from Christy Clark and we want a definitive `No.'"
The project would free land-locked Alberta to expand its customer base beyond the United States, a development worth billions of dollars in additional revenues, and Northern Gateway laid out its reasons for approval in a written submission filed last month.
"The evidence provided by Northern Gateway demonstrated the enormous economic benefits that the project would deliver to Canada, British Columbia, Alberta, and aboriginal peoples," it said.
"The project is urgently needed and meets all requirements for approval under the (National Energy Board) act. It is in the public interest."
While critics of the project have dominated public hearings so far, the company will have some prominent allies in the final leg of the process, with the Alberta government, the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce and Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers slated to present arguments in favour of the proposal, along with industry players such as Nexen and Cenovus (TSX:CVE).
Final arguments are scheduled over the next two weeks, and the panel's report to the federal government is due by the end of the year.