It's completely proper for Enbridge officials to meet with the provincial government during the Northern Gateway project's environmental assessment process, a senior company official said Friday.
Enbridge vice president for western access Janet Holder said she disagrees with Environment Minister Terry Lake's assertion that the province shouldn't hold private meetings with project proponents during the public review process.
"We don't agree with [the provincial government] on that statement," Holder said during a break in the hearings Friday at Columbus Community Centre on Domano Blvd. "Most regulators encourage you to have dialogue outside of the hearing room."
The province and Enbridge appear to be at loggerheads as the National Energy Board (NEB) hearings take a planned one-week break.
Lake insists Enbridge has yet to provide enough detailed information that it's spill response capacity is world class and has said he won't meet with the company privately to discuss his concerns as long as the federal government's environmental assessment is underway. He said the company will have ample opportunity to respond to his government's concerns during the public review process.
Holder said Enbridge has already gone above and beyond what is required to do at this phase of the proceedings and would love to sit down with Lake to talk it over.
By meeting privately, Holder said both sides can benefit by reducing the amount of time their lawyers spend in formal hearings. She said the company is currently in talks with a number of other interested parties
"The only one we're not meeting with is the province of B.C.," she said.
The province has yet to take a stand either for or against the project, which aims to connect Alberta's oilsands with the port of Kitimat. It has asked Northern Gateway to meet five conditions before it will consider granting approval, four of which are directly related to the NEB hearings.
The land-based spill response has been the only one addressed in Prince George.
Holder said the province should be assured that Northern Gateway's promises related to developing a more detailed spill response plan will face further scrutiny by the NEB once it's developed. She said the company has already put 10 years of work into the plan and needs assurances from the NEB that it's on the right track before investing in another two years of more intensive planning.
Two other provincial conditions - marine spill response and the involvement of First Nations - will be on the table at future hearings in Prince Rupert.
The fourth condition, approval by the NEB, can't be met until the Joint Review Panel issues its final report by the end of 2013.
The province is also looking for a larger share of the project's economic benefits and has been in talks with the government of Alberta about that issue, so far to no avail.
If the province maintains its vow not to meet, the next time the two sides will face off will be during the NEB hearings in Prince Rupert next month. The province has declined to question the third Northern Gateway witness panel, which will take the stand in Prince George sometime after the hearings resume on Oct. 29.
If the provincial government did decide to block the project, Holder said the impact would reverberate well beyond the pipeline industry.
"The risk of not doing it is not just the pipeline jobs it would generate and not just the tax and other revenues it would bring in," Holder said. "It brings into question how do you build any type of infrastructure?"