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Published on Monday September 10, 2012

Les Whittington
Ottawa Bureau

OTTAWA—More than 1,000 Canadians have spoken out at public hearings on whether to build the Northern Gateway oil pipeline through the British Columbia wilderness.

The information-gathering sessions, which resumed this week, will go on for months, with thousands of others waiting to give evidence.

But, even as corporate backers of the proposed $6-billion project began presenting their case, there was a growing conviction that the pipeline to carry oilsands-derived crude from Alberta to the B.C. coast had already become a non-starter.

On Tuesday in Edmonton, the so-called joint review panel set up by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government heard for the first time from senior executives of Enbridge Inc., the Calgary-base energy giant proposing to build Northern Gateway.

It was the latest stage in a process that will see the National Energy Board-led panel deliver a yes-or-no recommendation to the federal cabinet by late next year. The final decision on building the pipeline will be made by Harper.

Only a few months ago, it was widely thought the Conservatives’ unexpected decision to transfer final decision-making power from the independent regulators of the National Energy Board to Harper’s cabinet meant approval of the pipeline would be a slam dunk.

But it’s not turning out that way.

The plan to construct a pipeline to carry oil through northern B.C. for transport on supertankers has prompted an outpouring of opposition unlike anything seen in years.

“The coalition of civil society that is coming together against this is unprecedented in Canada,” observed Karen Wristen, executive director of the Living Oceans Society in Vancouver.

Those organizing against the pipeline include environmental groups, churches, B.C. municipalities, aboriginals and large numbers of residents along the planned Northern Gateway route. Across British Columbia, polls show growing public opposition.

Premier Christy Clark has threatened to block construction unless Enbridge guarantees world-class environmental protection and B.C. gets a larger share of pipeline revenues.

B.C. NDP Leader Adrian Dix, who could win the provincial election next spring, according to polls, goes even further. If elected, he says, his government will make its own decision on whether the project is environmentally safe enough to proceed.

While Ottawa has constitutional control over pipelines, it’s generally accepted that B.C.’s jurisdiction over land and water would give the province ample power to hold up Enbridge’s project.

The scope of the political opposition and the likelihood of years of court action by the 100-plus aboriginal groups opposing the pipeline are fanning doubts about whether it will ever get past the drawing board, despite the Harper government’s support.

In a recent analysis, energy stock experts at CIBC World Markets said Northern Gateway faces “ever-increasing political risk” and has no better than a 50/50 chance of being built before the end of the decade.

Roger McKnight, senior petroleum adviser at Oshawa-based En-Pro International Inc., also said Enbridge faces an uphill struggle.

“I personally don’t think Northern Gateway will go through anytime soon or if it ever will,” he said in an interview. “There’s just too much politics in the soup and there are too many environmental concerns in the soup and there’s aboriginal rights in the soup and that makes for a pretty unsavory soup.”

Asked if the federal government had been caught off guard, McKnight said, “Yeah, they misread the temperature of the water, environmentally and politically.”

He said Ottawa has jurisdiction over pipelines but “Mr. Harper, who has 21 Conservative seats in B.C., is between a rock and hard place on this.”

That point is borne out by a poll released Aug. 23 by Abacus Data Inc. that found 56 per cent of British Columbians oppose the pipeline, with 40 per cent strongly opposed. Supporters totalled 24 per cent, with 7 per cent expressing strong support.

“The implication overall is that the project is going to have a difficult time turning that opposition into support,” said David Coletto, Abacus’ chief analyst. That’s because the percentage of British Columbians strongly opposed is so large, he said.

The poll also found 40 per cent of British Columbians who voted for the federal Conservatives are against Northern Gateway. With Harper’s government highly supportive of the proposed pipeline, “the potential political implications of this could be huge,” Coletto said.

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