Enbridge Inc. expects more than half of the first nations along its proposed Northern Gateway pipeline to sign up for ownership by the end of May.
The company has offered a 10-per-cent stake in the controversial $5.5-billion project to first nations and Métis groups that claim territory within 80 kilometres of its route. Some 50 groups are affected. Of those, more than 20 had signed up by an early deadline in December.
Enbridge now expects a good deal more to sign by a final May 31 deadline, Janet Holder, the Enbridge executive vice-president in charge of Gateway, said in an interview Monday. The increase in numbers “will be significant,” Ms. Holder said.
“It will definitely be a majority.”
Persuading first nations, many concerned about the potential for a devastating spill, to support Northern Gateway has proven one of the most difficult obstacles facing Enbridge. But the company has quietly assembled agreements from groups enticed by the prospect of an essentially free ownership stake. Enbridge has pledged to finance equity participation, meaning first nations need place no money down.
Attaining a majority of first nations support would constitute a moral victory of sorts for Enbridge, which has sought to persuade the public that it does not face uniform opposition.
“It’s probably fair to say that the coastal first nations as a group are still strongly opposed,” Ms. Holder said. But, she added, “clearly, there is more support than opposition in Canada, and even in B.C. I think that’s important for people to know, and we’ll continue to improve upon those numbers.”
Pipeline critics among first nations’ peoples were quick to argue that signing on to an equity stake – the 10-per-cent ownership is expected to generate $300-million in earnings – is far different from supporting the project.
The agreements “don’t mean anything,” said Art Sterritt, executive director of the B.C. Coastal First Nations. “They just mean there are those out there that think the federal government is going to have some success in jamming [the project]through,” and want to profit in that case.
Mr. Sterritt said it makes sense for Alberta first nations to sign on , since “they’ve got pipelines everywhere, and one more pipeline for them doesn’t make any difference.” B.C. first nations, however, have been far more reluctant. Indeed, Enbridge declined to identify which groups have signed on, and first nations themselves have kept their participation secret.
Emma Gilchrist, a spokesperson for the Dogwood Initiative, an environmental group that has opposed Gateway, also argued that polls specifically asking about Gateway show Enbridge has a minority of support, especially in B.C.
Opposition is particularly strong among first nations nearest the coast. A “Freedom Train” assembled by the Yinka Dene Alliance, whose members claim a quarter of the project’s 1,172-kilometre route, has spent the past week crossing the country, and will arrive in Toronto to demonstrate at the Enbridge annual general meeting Wednesday.
The Gateway debate is set against a broader push for new oil markets. But Ms. Holder said a raft of new pipeline proposals – including a major expansion of the Trans Mountain line between Alberta and the Lower Mainland, as well as a new TransCanada plan to ship oil to Ontario and Quebec – have not hurt Enbridge support.
She also cautioned against reading too much into a renewed effort by Enbridge to look at an alternative route taking the pipeline from Alberta to Prince Rupert, instead of Kitimat.
The Enbridge studies on Prince Rupert, which should be made public this summer, are largely meant to buttress an argument before the National Energy Board that Kitimat is better, Ms. Holder said.
Still, providing more detail on Prince Rupert could give the board the ability to call for a re-route.
“It could be decided that Kitimat isn’t the right answer – then they would have the evidence to say whether [Prince]Rupert would work.”