Enbridge Northern Gateway president John Carruthers isn't sure why the provincial government is making a big deal about the lack of detailed plans his company has put forward during National Energy Board (NEB) hearings in Prince George over the past two weeks.
Northern Gateway is seeking approval to build a $6.5 billion pipeline that would cross through northern B.C. on its way to Kitimat, however the company admits that detailed engineering and spill response plans are still years away from completion.
Provincial Environment Minister Terry Lake has said that's not good enough, but Carruthers pointed out Northern Gateway is simply following the guidelines set out by the federal government's environmental review procedures.
"I don't quite understand the province's concern, it's very consistent with their own environmental assessment process, the one they used on Pacific Trails," Carruthers said Thursday during a break in proceedings at the Columbus Community Centre.
Lake bristled at the suggestion his government was asking for too much detail too early in the game.
"As the minister responsible for the environment, we understand how these things work," Lake said in a phone interview Thursday afternoon. "There has been a lack of details provided [by Northern Gateway] at this stage."
The province has set out five conditions that must be met before it will consider approving the pipeline, starting with approval from the NEB's Joint Review Panel. World class land and marine spill response are on the list as is engagement with First Nations and a fair share of the economic benefits.
Up for discussion this week in Prince George has been spill response and after the province finished its cross-examination of Northern Gateway witnesses on Wednesday, Lake said the company had yet to prove their land-based spill response meets the criteria.
Carruthers said he and other senior officials at the company would like to have the chance to speak with the province directly about the government's concerns, but the two sides haven't met since February. Carruthers said it's "imperative" the company and government officials sit down again soon.
"We have the same vision, we want world-class standards both in operations and spill response," he said. "I think the main process is we work with the province to address those issues jointly because if they have better ideas in terms of technology, processes or route, we should be implementing those."
Lake said no such meeting will take place as long as Northern Gateway is going through the formal environmental review.
He said it wouldn't be proper for a government official to meet with a proponent mid-process, but said Northern Gateway has ample opportunity to address the company's concerns through the public review currently underway.
"What are they going to say to me privately that they can't say publicly?" Lake asked.
Carruthers said it's par for the course for a company to present its preliminary findings at this stage of the process and if they're granted approval to proceed they start to work on more specific details.
"I don't think people fully understand the process," Carruthers said. "The stage we're at now is really one of 'if' and not 'how.' So we go through the process of determining is the project in the national interest and what is the environmental impact. Then you get into if it is approved you go into far more detail, far more engagement such that you get a better project."
Among the areas that will need approvals down the road are final route selection, construction permits and operational permits.
The challenge for interveners, like the province and series of First Nations and environmental groups, is that they only get to test the evidence by asking Northern Gateway questions at this phase. If the project is given the green light and final plans are produced only the federal regulator would be there to provide assurances the company is following through on its promises.
Carruthers said they should have confidence in the process because the NEB represents all Canadians.