Prince George will take centre stage in the Northern Gateway pipeline debate beginning today when the National Energy Board begins a month of hearings into the proposed megaproject.
The board's Joint Review Panel will hear testimony from Enbridge, the company behind the $6 billion plan to connect Alberta's oilsands to the port of Kitimat and by extension the Asian market, as well as representatives from governments, environmental groups and First Nations. The topics will range from the engineering of the pipeline and marine terminal, to safety and environmental risks to the socio-economic impact of the project on local residents.
The pipeline has been a divisive issue politically, with Enbridge and its supporters touting the economic benefits Canadian producers could generate for the country if they could get more money for their oil on the Asian market. Detractors are worried about the environmental harm that could come with a spill and point to Enbridge's safety record.
Enbridge executive vice-president for western access Janet Holder said the high-profile nature of the hearings has presented added challenges for the company's witnesses. Often environmental assessment hearings take place away from the media spotlight and witnesses are used to testifying just to the panel. With all the exposure this project has generated, witnesses have to be cognizant that they're speaking to both the panel and the media.
"When your responding it's much more difficult because you're recognizing that media is in the room and an answer without the context can be erroneously misrepresented, so it puts much more pressure on our witnesses," Holder said.
Earlier this year, B.C. Premier Christy Clark laid out five conditions that she wants met before giving the pipeline a green light. Two of those conditions, the environmental review itself and pipeline safety, will be addressed directly at the Prince George hearings.
Holder said Enbridge aims to prove over the next month that its pipeline plan is sound and that its spill response meets the government's demand that it be world-class.
"We care as much as anybody with regards to the environment and the risk of a potential spill," she said. "What we're going to be able to do is tell our story and explain what we will be doing with regards to this project to ensure that it is a world-class pipeline and we have probably the best spill response capabilities available."
Two of the provinces other requirements - marine safety and the role of First Nations - are expected to be touched on to a lesser degree in Prince George but will get a full airing when the scene shifts to Prince Rupert next month.
"Keep in mind that our coast, that I am so determined to protect, is also Canada's coast," Premier Christy Clark said in a speech at the University of Calgary this week. "It's your coast too. It belongs to all of our families, and it's a legacy all of us have an obligation to protect."
The fifth, and most highly publicized, condition relates to the financial benefit B.C should receive. That is beyond the scope of the panel and Clark will need to broker a deal between her government and the Alberta and federal governments or Enbridge to satisfy that demand.
There are 25 registered interveners for the Prince George hearings, eight of which are First Nations groups and seven representing environmental groups. There are also four interveners who are private individuals, and three government agencies, including the province of B.C. Two companies - including Prince George-based C.J. Peter Associates Engineering - and one union group round out the questioners.
Nine different groups could face cross-examination in Prince George, but the lion's share of the attention will be on Enbridge and the company is up first. Of the 207.8 total hours of questioning expected, the pipeline company is expected to face just under 167 hours. In order to answer all those queries, Enbridge has 27 experts on three different panels.
After it gives its answers, Enbridge will get the chance to pose its own questions. The company will quiz five First Nations and environmental groups on the evidence they presented.
The four federal government witness panels will be the last to take the stand. Despite expecting to face fewer than 21 hours of questioning, the feds will have a contingent of 26 experts on hand, representing Environment Canada, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Department of Natural Resources, Transport Canada and Aboriginal Affiairs and Northern Development.
Most interveners requested only a few hours for their questions - for instance the provincial government estimated eight hours and the District of Fort St. James asked for 2.5 - but much of the time will be taken up by the Haisla Nation, which has booked 79 hours. The overwhelming majority of that questioning time, 75 hours, will be directed at Enbridge, while the remaining four hours is set aside for the federal government.
When the hearings open today, the panel will hold an afternoon session at the Columbus Community Centre, beginning at 1 p.m. After that, the regular hours on Monday to Friday will be 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with a 90-minute break for lunch at noon. The panel will also convene on Saturdays from 8:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m.
The first set of Prince George hearings run Tuesday through Oct. 19. The scene shifts to the Ramada for the second phase of hearings from Oct. 29 to Nov. 9.
After the Prince George hearings conclude, there will be one final set of cross-examination in Prince Rupert beginning next month.
The final arguments are set for the spring and the panel is required to issue its final report by the end of 2013.