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B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake says Enbridge’s answers to the province’s questions at the public hearings for the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline are inadequate. But Enbridge says the government refuses to sit down with the company and talk, and criticized B.C. for debating through the media – making that point in a press release.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

The spat between Enbridge Inc. and British Columbia is escalating, with each side accusing the other of being out of line regarding discussions – or more precisely, the lack of discussions – over explosive issues tied to the controversial oil sands pipeline the province currently opposes.

The two have churned out duelling press releases quoting senior officials on both sides of the high-stakes tiff. B.C.'s Environment Minister says Enbridge's answers to the province's questions at the public hearings for the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline are inadequate. The Enbridge executive overseeing the project says the government refuses to sit down with the company and talk, criticizing B.C. for debating through the media – but making that point in a press release.

B.C. is threatening to block Gateway if its demands, which range from financial compensation to spill response systems, are not met. Experts differ on whether B.C. has the power to block the pipeline, although the federal government is a vocal supporter of the project. The fresh round of political sparring over answers at the Joint Review Panel's public hearings has heightened the tension between the two sides, and will further push the Gateway debate into the spotlight. If Gateway fails, oil produced in Canada could end up stranded on the continent, dragging down the price of that crude.

"The responses that Enbridge/Northern Gateway representatives are giving our legal counsel are long on promises, but short on solid evidence and action to date," B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake said in a statement Wednesday. "The company needs to show British Columbians that they have practical solutions to the environmental risks and concerns that have been raised. So far, they have not done that."

He went on to take another swipe at Enbridge. "The answers that we are getting in Prince George show that Enbridge/Northern Gateway has not yet done the work to prove that this pipeline will be safe," Mr. Lake said. "The company is not giving us much reason to have confidence that they can deliver on their promises."

Enbridge answered with statements of its own, noting B.C. has refused to meet with the company since February, 2012. "Notwithstanding the incredible amount of work on record to date, on a scale unprecedented in Canada and likely anywhere else in the world, a Joint Review Panel decision isn't the end, but the beginning of even more work, more detailed proposals, and better outcomes," Janet Holder, Enbridge's executive vice-president of western access, said in a statement released Thursday. "If the B.C. government has any ideas for improvements, any features they would like to see built into the project, any suggestions for different routes, techniques, or technology, we would love to discuss this."

Ms. Holder said many of the issues being raised at the hearing could be addressed jointly. "There is a need for direct discussions rather than interchanges through the media. This is the time for the B.C. government to be working with Northern Gateway to create the best possible solution for British Columbians."

B.C. Premier Christy Clark two weeks ago turned to media to air out the battle between her and Alberta Premier Alison Redford. Ms. Redford responded by following Ms. Clark's media scrum with one of her own.

B.C. and Enbridge put their pens down Thursday afternoon to do interviews. Mr. Lake explained why he wants Enbridge to speak in public, rather than behind closed doors. The hearings, he said, are "much like a quasi-judicial process" and it would be inappropriate to debate outside that forum. "We are representing the interests of British Columbians. So it is very important to get it on the record."

John Carruthers, head of Enbridge's Northern Gateway unit, said it would take about $500-million for the firm to complete the final engineering on the project and it is "unfair" to have the company do that now without knowing if it has passed the first steps in the approval process. He agrees it is important to get statements on the public record. "But that doesn't preclude the various parties from working together to create a more optimal solution," Mr. Carruthers said in an interview. "Nor does working together preclude a stakeholder like the province of B.C. from putting it on the record," he said. "I think it could be very complementary."

Ted Morton, a former Alberta politician whose career includes separate stints as Alberta's minister of energy, minister of finance, and minister of sustainable resource development, believes the public battle is not worth it.

"I can understand why the Clark government is demanding world-class land and maritime spill prevention and response systems and frankly I think they should. And I can also understand why the Clark government wants British Columbians to know that they are setting the bar very high," he said in an interview. "But having said that, I don't think it is very constructive to negotiate in the media. If you look at the two press releases you can see the hackles going up and the constructive exchange of information going down."

Mr. Morton, who is now an executive fellow at The School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary, views the project as too important to mess up. "I would hope on a go-forward basis that both sides can get together for the kinds of constructive information exchanges, usually not in front of the cameras, that will benefit all sides."