There is a battle underway.
It's being waged at the ground level, in community meetings, but also in the corporate world, and using the Internet and social media.
The objective: To influence the public's opinion on Enbridge's proposed $4.5-billion Northern Gateway pipeline.
On one side is Enbridge, and its business and municipal supporters, arguing the risks of the pipeline are manageable, and that the project will provide a tremendous economic boost to northern B.C.
On the other side is a coalition of environmental groups - some of them based in northern B.C. but others headquartered farther afield, in Victoria, Vancouver and even San Francisco - arguing the risks are too great, and pale in comparison to any long-term economic benefit.
Enbridge has considerable resources to promote its project - $100 million from the backing of unnamed prospective shippers and consumers of the oil and condensate.
It has hired former northern B.C. politicians - including former northwest B.C. Liberal MLA Roger Harris and former Prince George mayor Colin Kinsley - to assist in the promotion of the project. Enbridge has also created and backed the Northern Gateway Alliance, which includes a collection of northern B.C. mayors and business leaders. Alliance supporters include Prince George mayor Dan Rogers, Kitimat mayor Joanne Monaghan, Mackenzie mayor Stephanie Killam, and Prince George economic development advocate, Initiatives Prince George CEO Tim McEwan. The group also has support from the B.C. Chamber of Commerce.
The alliance's website boasts 450 members as of last week. Enbridge's officials have also delivered many presentations to business groups, including chambers of commerce and rotaries in northern B.C.Enbridge has also been active as a corporate sponsor, supporting baseball tournaments, native softball tournaments, an aboriginal dance troupe, a native band's proposed geothermal project, a First Nation cultural camp, a sockeye recovery program, a native community gathering and a First Nation golf tournament.
The Calgary-based company began this program of corporate support after the Northern Gateway pipeline proposal was announced. Although Enbridge is the largest pipeline company in North America, it has modest operations in B.C.'s North, the only notable infrastructure a natural gas line that runs from Fort St. John to the Alberta border.
Enbridge declined to comment in the past week on its promotional activities, saying they were too close to filing their final application to the National Energy Board. But in an earlier interview, Roger Harris, who was hired as Enbridge's vice-president of aboriginal and community partners, said the company was trying to engage people with concerns, to address them and find a way to build the pipeline.
"I think we've been very open about this project," he said.
Enbridge has also created community advisory boards for the Northern Gateway pipeline that solicits input behind closed doors. The people that agree to sit on the advisory boards are eligible to be paid $200 honorariums and travel expenses by the company.
B.C. Wildlife Federation representative Wayne Salewski, who is from Vanderhoof, has been attending the community advisory board meetings. While Salewski notes that the boards are not perfect, as Enbridge controls the agenda in some respects, he believes the federation has no choice but to participate.
"It's where the information is being discussed, where conversations are taking place," said Salewski, whose organization represents 37,000 hunters and fishers in the province.
As the advisory boards are still in the development stage, Salewski said he could not say whether they have had any value.
Enbridge has also been using new media to get its message out, creating an Enbridge Northern Gateway site on Facebook. The site has 60 fans. It includes links to job opportunities, skills development and videos promoting the project.
It also links viewers - through the "info" tab - to its "TheOtherSideOfTheCoin" website. On the site, Enbridge argues that it is "unfortunate" that some groups have chosen to use fear as their gimmick of choice in order to send a message. "We believe that the only way to alleviate fear is to know the facts," says Enbridge, arguing that oil tankers can travel the northern B.C. coast safely.
Even though some First Nations have taken money from Enbridge, they are careful to point out, in some cases, that accepting cash does not translate into support for the project.
The Nadleh Whut'en First Nation is a member of the group that received funding from Enbridge for a sockeye recovery program. The First Nation, in a letter to Enbridge, stressed that the funding did not constitute any form of consultation or accommodation.
Tara Marsden, who is with the Nadleh Whut'en, notes it is difficult to tell First Nations not to take the money when they are often cash-strapped. She says, however, that First Nations are aware Enbridge's corporate support is meant to promote the project.
At an all-native hockey tournament in Prince George, an Enbridge official was booed when presenting the trophy, observed Marsden.
"There were obviously people there who knew who they were, and were not in support of the pipeline," she said.
Environmental groups, sometimes in partnership with First Nations, are also working to profile their concerns with the project, which include the risk of pipeline and tanker spills, and increased production in the Alberta oil sands.
The recently-created, Prince George-based Sea to Sands Conservation Alliance held a pair of information meetings last week, which they dubbed the Crude Facts.
"People need to become educated about the potential negative impacts of this project and decide if this type of development will truly benefit northerners," said event organizer Sonja Ostertag.
The Seas to Sands group has a facebook site with 723 members last week, more than Enbridge's business alliance website.
The group is planning more events in Prince George including an airing of the movie H2Oil with the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council on March 22, International Water Day. H2Oil is a film on the Alberta tar sands.
Other environmental groups, including the Victoria-based Dogwood Initiative, have launched more widespread campaigns, including one aimed at halting oil tanker traffic on the coast. They have distributed more than 300,000 No Tanker loonie decals in Canada. The black decals make the loon on the $1 coin look like it's covered in oil.
The group also staged a protest at the Enbridge Northern Gateway World Baseball Challenge last summer in Prince George. The environmentalists tried to take their message into the baseball park, floating large balloons in the crowd that protested oil tanker traffic. However, after one of the balloons hit the field, the protesters were asked to leave by the police.
The Dogwood Initiative has also launched aggressive letter-writing campaigns to prospective purchasers of the oil from the Northern Gateway pipeline.
Recently, the Dogwood Initiative claimed that 12,000 letters sent to oil executives -- opposing oil tanker traffic on B.C.'s North Coast -- caused Korean National Oil to decide not to buy oil that's transported through Enbridge's gateway pipeline.
Dogwood Initiative campaigner Eric Swanson says he believes Enbridge has failed to capture either public support of the project or commercial backing. "Even with $100 million they can't get buy in," said Swanson.
The Dogwood Initiative has also organized protest rallies in Victoria, and distributed 1,700 No Tanker signs in Greater Victoria and Vancouver.
The group has also spearheaded boardroom challenges, partnering with shareholders to put forward a proposal at Enbridge's annual general meeting last year. The proposal called for Enbridge to disclose the frequency and volume of tanker spills, and received support from shareholders holding $800 million in stock.
The environmental group has also joined with the Rainforest Action Network to target the Royal Bank of Canada as a financier of the Alberta oil sands. While groups like the Prince George-based Seas to Sands organization have relied on volunteers and individual donations to support events like their Crude Facts session, the Victoria-based Dogwood Initiative has an annual operating budget of nearly $400,000.
The budget largely comes from grants from foundations (about $250,000) and individual donations (about $125,000).
Foundations that have granted money to Dogwood for their campaigns against tanker traffic include the Tides, Endswell and Glasswaters foundations. The Dogwood Initiative has a four-person board that includes three people from Vancouver and one from northwest B.C.
WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING . . .
More than 2,000 letters have already been logged with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency on the pipeline project. An examination by The Citizen of a random sampling of 100 of these letters, showed that all of them were opposed to the project. Many of them appear to be form letters offered up by environmental groups.
A 2008 Synovate poll -- commissioned by several environmental groups, including West Coast Environmental Law -- found that 70 per cent of those surveyed support a ban on tanker traffic in B.C.'s inland coastal waters.
The question was somewhat leading, however, calling attention to a 1972 federal tanker ban on B.C.'s inside coast. The tanker ban, or moratorium, is disputed by some, including the current federal Conservative government.
If tanker traffic was not allowed on B.C.'s inside coast, there would be no point to building the Enbridge pipeline. Two similar polls in 2006 had comparable results.
WHAT'S UNDER DEBATE
- Enbridge's $4.5-billion Northern Gateway pipeline, which includes twin oil and condensate lines.
- The 1,170-kilometre pipeline is meant to carry oil from Alberta's tar sands to the coast at Kitimat. From there it will be loaded on super tankers for shipment to Asia or, perhaps, the U.S. West Coast.
- Condensate will be shipped by smaller tanker to Kitimat -- from places like Asia, the Middle East and Russia -- where it will be pumped into the pipeline for transfer back to the Alberta oil sands. The kerosene-like liquid is used to thin bitumen from the oil sands so it can be shipped in pipelines.
- The project is meant to open up new markets for bitumen from the Alberta oil sands.
Almost all of the oil is shipped to the U.S.
SATURDAY: A look at the coast -- and tanker concerns