Already facing a surge of public opinion against the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, proponents of the project are set to engage in a four-month cross examination of their plans.
The federal environmental hearings into the proposition to build a pipeline from Alberta's oilsands to the port of Kitimat enter their final phase today in Edmonton and continue next month in Prince George and conclude in December in Prince Rupert.
Over the next four months Enbridge, the company behind the $6 billion project, will face queries from groups ranging from the B.C. government to unions on everything from the economic viability of the plan to whether or not its planned safety measures are up to snuff.
The hearings are part of a four-year examination of the project by the National Energy Board's Joint Review Panel. The panel must offer its final recommendations to the federal government by the end of 2013.
The cross-examination comes at a critical time for the project, which not only must get the panel's blessing in order to proceed, but also must generate enough political support. A recent public opinion poll by Abacus Data showed 56 per cent of British Columbians were against the proposal. Nationally, the country appears split with 31 per cent in favour of the pipeline, 32 per cent against and the rest still undecided.
The provincial NDP, significantly ahead in the polls in the lead up to the 2013 election, are actively campaigning against the pipeline and have pledged to launch their own environmental review if elected. The governing Liberals, who generally have a pro-business bent, have set out five conditions that must be met before they would consider supporting the project. The Liberals did not provide any evidence to the panel, but will be asking questions over the next four months.
Even the federal Conservatives, who had been strong advocates for the pipeline plan, have tempered their comments in recent weeks as public support for the pipeline diminished.
Although anyone was allowed to submit written evidence or present oral statements at earlier phases of the hearing, only registered intervenors, government participants and Northern Gateway itself are allowed to ask questions.
The panel has limited the types of questions allowed into two categories: those relating to evidence which has already been presented and those relating to the official list of issues. The panel will not allow any "sweetheart cross-examination" -- queries used simply to prop up evidence the questioner supports -- or any the repeat of any questions from the earlier phases of the process, including any written questions which have been answered.
The first phase of the questions in Edmonton plays into Enbridge's hands. The topics will focus on the economic merits of the plan and the company is expected to extol the virtues of having the ability to ship Canadian crude to Asia and the jobs the pipeline will create. Currently, the United States is Canada's lone major market for oil, but by generating competition from Asia it's expected the price for the oilsands product will increase. The company also estimates it will take 62,700 person years worth of construction work to complete the 1,177 kilometre pipeline.
Critics are expected to point to how dependent the project is on high oil prices and the lack of economic benefits for British Columbia.
Some of the most interesting testimony is set for Prince George, beginning Oct. 9 at the Columbus Community Centre on Domano Boulevard. Up for discussion will be the environmental safeguards in place for the pipeline, something opponents have zeroed in on as a flaw with the proposal.
Enbridge will have to explain how the Northern Gateway pipeline will be able to withstand the treacherous terrain in northern B.C., and what steps it will take in the event of a leak or a spill. The company has taken a beating for its response to a spill in Michigan in 2010, but is expected to explain why its Northern Gateway plan exceeds current safety standards.
Also on tap for Prince George are the possible socio-economic effects of the pipeline, including the impact on human health in the case of a spill; potential impacts on landowners along the proposed route; alternative routing ideas; the design of both the pipeline and marine terminal and accident prevention and response.
The hearings will be at the Columbus Community Centre from Oct. 9-19 and then shift to the Ramada hotel on George Street from Oct. 29-Nov. 9. All the cross-examination hearings are open to the public.
The final set of questions will take place in Prince Rupert beginning Nov. 22 and will centre around the impact on First Nations' rights and safety questions surrounding the marine terminal.
For its part, Enbridge has issued a series of public statements over the last month saying it welcomes the opportunity to answer whatever questions are thrown its way.
"We are pleased to have the chance to share our extensive reviews, our economic studies and our findings from our consultations with the communities along the right of way," Enbridge executive vice-president for western access Janet Holder said in a prepared statement. "It is important to us that we address the concerns and show how we have considered the reservations that have been expressed in the hearing to date.
After the conclusion of the questioning phase of the hearings on Dec. 18, the panel will turn its attention to the final arguments set for March and April of next year.