Enbridge Inc. is facing a new hurdle to its controversial plan to export oil sands crude to Asia, as pressure builds on the government to impose a ban on supertanker traffic in northern B.C. waters.
Doubts are growing within the industry about Enbridge's ability to gain regulatory approvals for its $5.5-billion Northern Gateway pipeline, which would traverse 1,100 kilometres of wild terrain to Kitimat, B.C., where supertankers would load the oil sands bitumen for Pacific markets.
In Ottawa on Tuesday, Liberal and New Democratic Party MPs allied themselves with the West Coast native groups and environmentalists to oppose the pipeline, and urged Prime Minister Stephen Harper to legislate a ban on crude tanker traffic.
In an open letter to the Prime Minister, 15 opposition MPs said proposed oil tanker traffic through Canadian waters in the northern Pacific will pose "unacceptable economic, navigational and environmental risks." The growing opposition is turning up the heat on Mr. Harper, who is a staunch supporter of oil sands development but faces broad skepticism about the project in British Columbia.
Northern Gateway is critical if Canada is to seize opportunities in the fast-growing markets of China and the rest of Asia, said Enbridge chief executive officer Pat Daniel. The project represents a massive investment in Western Canadian energy development, and would spur expansion among Alberta's oil sands producers.
"By opening the world's energy market to Canada, Northern Gateway will help enable the nation to achieve its true potential as a global energy superpower and to enjoy the benefits of its resource wealth for generations," Mr. Daniel said in a speech in Calgary on Tuesday.
The Gateway pipeline would carry 525,000 barrels a day of oil sands bitumen from the Edmonton area to the B.C. coast. Enbridge is now before a joint review panel of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and the National Energy Board, which are holding hearings on the economic, environmental and social impacts of the project, including marine safety.
The project is a test of Canada's ability to work with first nations to build large-scale projects through their traditional territory. Enbridge has entered into negotiations with some 30 aboriginal groups along the pipeline route, but faces adamant opposition from coastal first nations, who say the project threatens their livelihood and culture.
"No prime minister of Canada before you has allowed bulk crude oil tankers to transit the abundant coastal waters of Canada's Pacific north coast; we urge you to refrain from being the first," the six Liberals and nine New Democrats wrote. The opposition included a signature line for 22 Conservative MPs from B.C., who were contacted but did not sign the letter.
Northern Gateway also faces doubts within the industry. Oil industry veterans such as Murray Edwards, vice-chair of Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., last week said a West Coast pipeline would be "just as challenging" to win regulatory approval as the long-stalled Mackenzie Valley gas project.
There has been a de facto moratorium on supertanker traffic in the region of the Queen Charlotte Sound, Hecate Straight and Douglas Channel, but there is no written confirmation of that policy.
Transport Minister Chuck Strahl appeared to rebuff the opposition's demands, saying there is a current moratorium that covers tankers travelling between Alaska and Washington state.
In a Parliament Hill news conference on Tuesday, MPs from both parties were joined by representatives of West Coast native organization, as well as tourist and fisheries organizations.
"Our nations have declared a ban on oil tankers through our waters because a spill would kill our livelihoods and wipe out our culture," said Art Sterritt, executive director of Coastal First Nations, which represents nine communities along the coast. Mr. Sterritt said the first nations have invested $300-million in recent years to develop sustainable fishing and harvesting industries, and that a tanker spill would do irreparable economic damage.
NDP MP Nathan Cullen said Canadians have seen the damage wrought by the Exxon Valdez on the Alaska coastal waters, and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and do not want a repeat along the B.C. coast. He said the Enbridge project would require the transit of some 250 supertankers a year through some of the "roughest water in the world."
In his Calgary speech, Mr. Daniel acknowledged there are legitimate concerns about tanker safety off the West Coast, but insisted the company is addressing those issues. He said the ships will all be modern, double-hulled vessels; will require local pilots to navigate through the channel to Kitimat; will be escorted by tugs through coastal routes, and will be guided by enhanced navigational equipment, including radar.
He acknowledged, however, that he can't guarantee there will be no spills.