Opposition to the proposed $5.5 billion Northern Gateway pipeline project has stiffened with the release of a report by three environmental groups which argue bitumen from Alberta's oil sands can't safely be transported across British Columbia.
In releasing the report, Tuesday, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Pembina Institute and the Living Oceans Society, jointly called on federal and provincial governments to reject the proposed pipeline and to permanently ban oil tanker traffic on B.C.'s north coast.
But Enbridge Inc. was quick to respond, saying the report offers no new information and amounts to fear mongering about a project that is of national importance, and which has acceptable risks.
At a press conference representatives of the environmental groups, and Gerald Amos a Haisla band member who has been rallying native opposition to the project, said possible pipeline leaks, or ruptures caused by landslides, and the risk of oil tanker spills on the rugged B.C. coastline, all make the proposal unacceptable.
Several of the participants were critical of Alberta's oil sands, leaving little doubt that the opposition is as much about the source of the oil, as it is about the pipeline itself.
"Basically we're dealing with two different issues. One is that we really don't need expansion of tar sands. But most important for the purposes of this discussion today [is that]there really is no safe and risk free way to get tar sands oil and pipelines and super tankers across British Columbia's ecosystem," said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a U.S.-based, international environmental group.
"British Columbia has some of the most amazing natural resources and the communities that live in those regions really depend on those natural resources. It simply doesn't seem worth the risk. . . when you look at who would be benefiting," she said. "The benefit really stays with the oil industry. . .and all the risk is being borne by the communities and the ecosystems in British Columbia."
Nathan Lemphers of the Pembina Institute, a national non-profit, advocacy group, said the Northern Gateway project had not planned for all eventualities, such as the impact on the pipeline of possible catastrophic events such as earthquakes or landslides.
"Right now Enbridge hasn't made a sufficiently strong enough case that they are prepared for the worst case scenario, which faces British Columbians with an unacceptable level of risk," said Mr. Lemphers.
But Paul Stanway, communications manager for Northern Gateway, accused the groups of raising unreasonable fears and setting "zero risk" targets that no pipeline project could ever reach.
"You would hope that the standard is going to be reasonable and achievable. To set a target that cannot be achieved is not really any target at all. You know, it supports their position that this pipeline should not be built under any circumstance," he said.
"We're not going to tell you that there are no risks involved with building pipelines. We deal with those risks every day," said Mr. Stanway. "What we aim to do is minimize them to a reasonable level. And I think the suggestion here is to exaggerate the risk that's involved and I think that's unfair."
The report suggests that bitumen - the raw, tar sands crude that would be shipped through the Northern Gateway pipeline to a port on the B.C. coast - is more dangerous to transport than other oils because it is corrosive.
But Mr. Stanway flatly rejected that assertion.
"The bottom line is, nobody has been able to identify any additional risk or hazard involved with transporting oil sands crude," he said.
Mr. Stanway said it is clear the environmental groups are trying to sway public opinion, but Enbridge remains hopeful that the project will get federal approved and win public support.
"We knew right from the beginning that this was going to be a controversial project. It's the largest private infrastructure project in British Columbia's history. It comes at a time when there is heightened awareness of issues surrounding both the transportation and the use of oil. So we understood that there were going to be a lot of questions and you know we think we have the answers that people have, but they have to be prepared to listen and not be frightened by the sort of fear-mongering that we sometimes see," he said.
Following release of the report, B.C. New Democrat environment critic Rob Fleming called on the provincial government to reject the pipeline.
"The opportunities for disaster are many, and the B.C. Liberals should re-assure British Columbians that it will not go through," he said in a statement.