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A woman holds up a sign protesting the Keystone XL pipeline outside a U.S. State Department public hearing in Washington, D.C., on Friday, Oct. 7, 2011.Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

So far British Columbia has been spared the kind of intense pipeline fight that buffets the proposed Keystone XL project to carry Alberta crude from the oil sands to Texas.

But not for much longer. Pipeline politics in this province are heating up.

This week, the pivotal Tsleil-Waututh Nation declared its strong opposition to the potential expansion of Kinder Morgan's existing oil pipeline to Burrard Inlet and the increase in oil-tanker traffic it would bring to their traditional waters.

"We are people of the inlet, and we are passionate about it," said Chief Justin George, adding his influential voice to a number of Lower Mainland politicians also nervous about more oil tankers passing through Vancouver harbour.

It's the latest salvo in a large pending battle over B.C.'s emergence as an alternative route for Alberta crude to get to export markets, particularly if the Keystone pipeline is killed.

In addition to Kinder Morgan's desire to ramp up its capacity, there is the proposed $6.6-billion Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline that would run through the province to an oil tanker port in Kitimat.

If approved, Gateway would result in more than 200 large oil tankers a year travelling through a series of narrow, coastal channels to and from the West Coast, mostly bound for Asia.

As the Keystone decision looms, federal cabinet ministers have increasingly touted the benefit of selling more oil sands petroleum to Asia as an alternative to the controversial southbound pipeline.

That means pipelines, oil tankers and an almost certain confrontation with environmentalists and native groups that could rival other major ecological showdowns in the province.

More than 3,000 people, including many prominent native leaders, have already registered to speak at federal environmental assessment hearings on the Gateway project early next year.

"It seems as if all these issues are coming to a head at once," said Ben West of the Wilderness Committee, referring to pipeline plans of Kinder Morgan and Gateway.

Polls have consistently shown a large majority of British Columbians opposed to oil tankers travelling through B.C. coastal waters.

The Gateway issue is so hot that Premier Christy Clark, a relentless drum pounder for jobs and more trade with Asia, refuses to say anything about the multibillion-dollar project, despite its potential to provide as many as 4,000 high-paying construction jobs.

Repeatedly pressed by reporters about Gateway during her recent visit to Calgary, Ms. Clark said she would take no position until the federal environmental assessment is complete, at least two years down the road, which would also be after the provincial election.

"We'll see what the review tells us and then we can have a debate, based on the facts," she said.

Scores of native groups – those whose claimed traditional territory Gateway will cut through, and those on the coast worried about oil tanker mishaps – are digging in against the pipeline, threatening to do whatever is necessary to stop it.

Arnold Clifton is chief of the Gitga'at at the head of Douglas Channel. If Gateway goes ahead, oil supertankers will pass close by the native community of Hartley Bay, where the Queen of the North ferry went down.

He puts the fear of an oil spill in a few succinct words: "The tankers will be going right through our dinner table. When the tide is low, the table is set."

As for Kinder Morgan's pipeline plans, the company announced last month that it was seeking customer interest in a proposal to construct a twin pipeline along its current route. That would boost capacity from 300,000 to 700,000 barrels of oil a day, and increase tanker traffic coming into its Westridge marine facility in Burnaby, from the current three or four tankers a month.

No way, Mr. George said. "In my young life, there has already been a great change in the inlet. Growing up, I used to clam there. Nobody can clam in the inlet now," said Mr. George, 41. "It's very discouraging to learn that Kinder Morgan wants to add more oil tankers to the problem, and we are going to do everything we can to oppose them. The risk of a tragedy is just too high."