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Natives from the Yinka Dene Alliance march through downtown Calgary on May 11, 2011, protesting Enbridge Pipeline's Northern Gateway project that is planning to cross their land.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press/Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

More than 4,000 people and groups have registered to speak at hearings into a proposed pipeline that would ship crude from Alberta's oil sands to fill supertankers on the British Columbia coast.

Opponents of the $5.5-billion Enbridge Inc. Northern Gateway pipeline hope the surge of public interest will pressure Ottawa not to approve the project.

Community hearings are to start in January. Each person will be given 10 minutes to speak.

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Dana Adams is one of the people who has registered and says she is eager to tell a federal review panel what she thinks.

"I think this is an environmental disaster waiting to happen," said Ms. Adams, who is the chef and owner of Queen B's Cafe in Queen Charlotte, B.C.

Ms. Adams worries an oil tanker could run aground and foul the pristine coastal waters similar to what happened in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez hit a reef in Alaska.

"We are right on the water and it is gorgeous. For me it is too much to lose if we do have a spill."

Calgary-based Enbridge says it welcomes public input, but is concerned the process could bog down.

Enbridge spokesman Paul Stanway said the project is already eight months to a year behind. If approved, it's possible the startup date for the pipeline could be pushed beyond 2017.

He said Enbridge is also concerned people could be manipulated by groups that hope to turn Northern Gateway into an anti-oils ands battleground similar to the Keystone XL pipeline debate in the United States.

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"There is no question that the groups internationally who are opposed to the development of oil sands oil are focused on both projects," Mr. Stanway said.

"If this is a genuine expression of public interest, we have no concerns about that at all. What would be a concern is if this is a strategy being employed by political activists to try and undermine the regulatory process."

A Victoria-based group called the Dogwood Initiative is claiming some credit for the number of people who have registered to speak at the hearings.

Spokesman Eric Swanson says Dogwood's "Mob the Mic" Internet campaign was supported by a coalition that includes the Living Oceans Society and the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition.

Other groups such as the Sierra Club, Friends of Wild Salmon and Forest Ethics ran separate registration campaigns. They spoke at universities and knocked on doors in communities along the pipeline route.

Mr. Swanson hopes the number and sentiment of the presenters will pressure the B.C. government to oppose Northern Gateway and make the project too politically divisive for the federal government.

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"People feel, I think, an intense need to defend their coast and their rivers and their homes," Mr. Swanson said from Victoria.

"It will be on the record and we hope it will create a political moment for B.C. politicians to respond to. I hope it will spark a national debate."

Enbridge and project supporters, such as the Alberta government, say the pipeline would provide new markets in Asia and the U.S. for raw oil sands crude and create thousands of construction and long-term jobs.

The pipeline would run 1,200 kilometres from central Alberta across two mountain ranges to Kitimat on the B.C. coast. When fully operational, it would carry about 525,000 barrels of oil a day.

In addition to the thousands of individuals who have registered to speak, groups have signed up to make statements. They include First Nations, tourism operators, fur trappers, B.C. universities, unions, Canadian National Railway, fish and game associations and the Resort Municipality of Whistler.

Students from a high school club in Smithers, B.C., called Youth for a Better World are on the list.

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Arctica Cunningham, 16, said she decided to get involved after talking with her friends and teachers about the oil sands and reading up on pipelines.

The Grade 11 student said she will tell the review panel that Northern Gateway is simply not worth the risk of something going wrong.

"This is my future, this is my town, my valley," Ms. Cunningham said.

"I feel like if I don't do something to try and stop this, I'm going to kick myself for the rest of my life if something did happen. So, personally, I think it is my duty to do this."

An official with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency says the deadline to register to make a statement at the hearings was Oct. 6 and staff are still processing requests.

The agency is to announce later this year in which communities the public hearings will be held.

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The panel is to make a recommendation to the federal cabinet on the pipeline by the end of next year.

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