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Burrard Inlet in Vancouver (LAURA LEYSHON For The Globe and Mail)
Burrard Inlet in Vancouver (LAURA LEYSHON For The Globe and Mail)

The energy bridge to China Add to ...

For both companies, the draw lies in Asia's fast-growing refining capacity. By Enbridge's count, China, Japan and South Korea have three times more refining capacity for Canadian heavy crudes than does North America.

"They import something in the order of 11 million barrels a day," Mr. Carruthers said. "And we believe we can access 1.5 million barrels of that capacity."

Enbridge estimates that by sending oil to a market with strong demand, rather than one like the U.S. where demand has weakened, it can earn $2 to $3 (U.S.) more on every barrel it sells. At 550,000 barrels per day, that could trigger a huge wash of new cash.

Most important, opening up an Asian market would mean that Canadian oil producers no longer have to passively accept whatever price U.S. refiners are willing to pay. They could play U.S. and Asian customers off against one another in search of the best deal.

"Having more than one customer is always an important issue," said Rick George, chief executive officer of Suncor Energy Inc. "You never want to leave yourself as a supplier with only one customer."

Whose backyard?

Despite the industry's optimism, it is by no means clear that the pipelines will ever be built. A rise in U.S. demand or a plunge in oil prices could undermine the case for going ahead.

In a worrisome sign, Enbridge presented Northern Gateway for regulatory approval without securing any commitment from oil and gas companies to use it - an exceedingly rare move.

And doubters question whether the new lines are needed. So much pipe has been laid to the U.S. in recent years that analysts believe it won't all be filled for years to come.

"There is no question that Canada is long on export pipeline capacity until the end of the decade as a result of what's been built," Mr. Anderson said.

But the industry believes the threat of looming U.S. greenhouse gas legislation, which could make it more difficult to sell gasoline made from carbon-heavy oil sands crude, renders the Asian option worthwhile. "It's not about capacity. It's about providing the option," Mr. Anderson said.

The question, according to Mr. Anderson: "What's the size of project you need to feed that option? And through whose backyard are you building it?"

Both of the competing concepts are well-funded and well-researched. Enbridge's Gateway proposal is bigger and likely more expensive, but it has the advantage of serving large, more efficient tankers with a shorter sailing time between Kitimat and Asia.

In contrast, Kinder Morgan believes that by expanding an existing pipeline, rather than building an entirely new one, it can move crude more cheaply.

It has yet to file a formal application and faces opposition in Vancouver, where its plans would result in doubling the number of crude carriers sailing past the city's downtown. Though that would only bring tanker traffic to just over 5 per cent of all vessels there - a figure Mr. Anderson calls "a drop in the bucket" - it would create much more visibility, and raise the possibility of local protest and punitive legislation.

See a timeline of pipeline resistance in western Canada

Kinder Morgan may want to draw lessons from Enbridge, which has seen Gateway become an environmental flashpoint.

The proposed pipeline would span 1,172 kilometres, crossing the territory of roughly 50 first nations and 773 creeks, streams and rivers. Opponents say Gateway would bring massive volumes of oil into places it does not belong.

That concern is especially loud in Kitimat, where the Haisla First Nation points to sea water so rich it has produced two-to-a-pound prawns. Even Mr. Ignatieff, the Liberal Leader, has said oil tankers should not run there - a direct attack on Gateway.

Feelings run just as strong on the Stuart River in the B.C. interior, a place of lovely stillness where calm waters meander beneath circling bald eagles, and where brothers Blondie and Vince Prince come to touch the divine.

"That's my cathedral. You get some people go to St. Peter's in Rome. They got nothing on down the river, man," said Blondie, the older of the two.

Community members are passionate about the issue: "Any disturbance by Enbridge would mean the total annihilation of our existence," says Peter Erickson, a councillor with the Fort St. James Nak'azdli band. "We've already lost the majority of our salmon. And now they're putting in jeopardy the rest of them, what little we have. It's just atrocious."

Across northern B.C., Gateway has triggered a fiercely emotional response. First nations have banded together in unprecedented ways to oppose the project, and many have pledged blockades and other measures to block the line if Enbridge attempts to build it.

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