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The Douglas Channel is the proposed termination point in British Columbia for the Northern Gateway oil pipeline from Alberta. (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The Douglas Channel is the proposed termination point in British Columbia for the Northern Gateway oil pipeline from Alberta. (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

How Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline lost its way Add to ...

To Enbridge, Alexis is clear proof that the company is not tin-eared, and that when First Nations take the time to talk, executives not only listen, they act.

“When people don’t engage, it’s very difficult to move a project like this forward. Where you can engage, I think you see success,” says Janet Holder, the Enbridge executive vice-president in charge of the project.

“In any relationship, perceptions play a major role. I think in a lot of cases what’s happened to us is the perception of Enbridge. And I honestly don’t believe we’ve been deserving of the perceptions.”

Enbridge may not have taken MP Mr. Cullen up on his offer to hold community forums. But it did arrange for community advisory boards, a series of groups along the pipeline route that regularly place local residents, activists and trappers into a room to discuss the project, pose questions to Enbridge and suggest change. The pipeline is now on Route V – “for victory,” Ms. Holder jokes – after more than 20 major iterations that incorporate all sorts of nods to local concerns.

Ms. Holder acknowledges missteps. At first, Enbridge may not have fully grasped “the difference between British Columbians and Albertans,” although Ms. Holder is herself from Prince George, B.C., and has moved back there to guide the project. What about the grid that kept Enbridge out of certain meetings? “You would need to look at all forms of communication to make an assessment of will it be effective,” explains John Carruthers, the president of Northern Gateway. He acknowledges that hindsight reveals other shortcomings. “I think there had to be a greater recognition of the time required to build the relationships,” he says.

But for Mr. Carruthers and Enbridge, there is another question worth asking: Would it have made any difference had the grid never existed and the company took all of the steps people had advised? Had it listened more, had it offered First Nations ownership at an earlier date, would any of it have changed things?

After all, a company cannot give in to every local demand and still build a financially feasible project. And “some people would oppose the project no matter what you did,” Mr. Carruthers says.

The most controversial element of Gateway is also the most unalterable: Enbridge is proposing an oil pipeline across a part of Canada where oil stirs up very bad memories: the Exxon Valdez. Among the 15 First Nations that backed the Pacific Trail Pipelines natural gas project, for example, virtually none were prepared to support an oil project. “There was no amount of benefits on the table for oil that would outweigh the perceived cost,” says Mr. Metcs, the consultant. “I think it really is to some extent as simple as that.”

For Enbridge, the calculation is, in many ways, equally simple: Without Gateway, all of Canada loses. Gateway’s risks have been thoroughly exposed. What is missing from many minds is proper consideration of its benefits, Ms. Holder argues. “People just do not appreciate the value that the oil industry brings into the lifestyle we have today,” she says.

Amid the uncertainty, Enbridge continues on, holding meetings, promising local benefits, attempting to assuage critics’ safety concerns. Even one of its sharpest detractors says the company has found its footing. “They’re doing all the things someone should be doing. They really are being engaging,” says Mr. Harris, the former vice-president. “The problem is they waited until 2013 to do that in a constructive way, and now no one believes them. It doesn’t matter what they say.”

But Enbridge is keeping the faith.

“I have a fundamental belief it can be built and operated safely. I see tremendous need for it, and I see it can be built and operated safely. And Canada can do it,” Mr. Carruthers says.

“I recognize it’s hard. To me, it’s not a reason not to want do it.”

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