A small group of protesters greeted the environmental review panel weighing the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline Tuesday as the hearings returned to B.C., where the pipeline's proponent will face cross-examination about the plans.
Members of the local Carrier-Sekani First Nations and conservationists held signs telling Enbridge to go home.
The $6-billion project would carry diluted bitumen from the Alberta oil sands through northern B.C. to a tanker port in Kitimat, B.C., for transport to markets in Asia.
The final hearings getting under way in Prince George will see company officials and interveners questioned under oath about environmental and socio-economic effects of the pipeline, safety standards and accident prevention and response.
Terry Teegee, vice-tribal chief for the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, said the protest is meant to send a message to Enbridge and to the panel.
"We don't want this project in our territories, or British Columbia or the coastal waters," Mr. Teegee said in an interview.
The Carrier-Sekani are not participating in the panel process because, Mr. Teegee said, the panel does not have a mandate to examine aboriginal rights or the cumulative effects of a pipeline.
"I think where we see our fight is in the courts," Mr. Teegee said. "We're going to be seeing this potentially go to court if it is approved."
Todd Nogier, a spokesman for Enbridge Northern Gateway, said the hearings are a chance for the company to answer questions about pipeline design and safety.
"We're looking forward to having that detail put out in the public domain and to the (panel)," he said.
Mr. Nogier added this round of hearings will show the "tremendous" level of detail that's gone into the project design.
"The work continues," he said. "The project design continues to evolve as we continue to study the project. The assessment and studies haven't stopped."
Melinda Worfolk was one of about 30 people who gathered midday in front of the community centre where the hearings are taking place this week.
"It would change the landscape drastically in this place that really has an amazing environment and wilderness and biodiversity. And once that's gone, no amount of money can make it up."
The B.C. government issued a news release Tuesday saying it has a list of questions for Enbridge officials.
They centre on the company's proposed land-based spill prevention, response and recovery strategies. That includes finding out about where equipment is available for cleanup and how the company plans to detect potential leaks along the line.
The B.C. government is being represented at the hearings by Geoff Plant, a former attorney-general who has been appointed the chief legal strategist on the Enbridge file.
He was in Edmonton last month for the first phase of the cross-examination process, which dealt with Enbridge's liability coverage and its ownership structure.
"The evidence given by Enbridge in Edmonton left more questions than answers about whether the proponent will put arrangements in place to respect that principle," the government said in a news release.
During the Edmonton hearings, B.C.'s lawyer questioned Enbridge about the 50 per cent stake the oil company would have in the Northern Gateway project, with the other half being divvied up by other investors.
Lawyer Elisabeth Graff suggested Enbridge has created a corporate structure to limit how much it would have to pay.
She noted that under that structure, Enbridge would only be liable for half the clean-up costs of the disastrous 2010 spill into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, which has so far cost $800-million.
Enbridge officials said they look forward to their return to B.C.
"As the project proponent, we intend to demonstrate to British Columbians and to all Canadians through the examination of the facts and science upon which this project application is based that there is a path forward that provides for prosperity while protecting the environment," Janet Holder, the company's vice-president of western access, said in a statement released Friday.
"The [panel] is the appropriate forum for this confidence-building exercise with Canadians."
But company officials may take a back seat to federal government representatives, who will be subject to questioning for the first time since hearings began earlier this year.
Several participants in the panel hearings have been so keen to get answers on everything from regulatory changes to government budget cuts that the panel has already tried to rein in the cross-examinations.
Officials from Aboriginal Affairs, Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans, Natural Resources and Transport Canada will be answering questions on evidence those ministries have provided to the panel as it weighs the project.
Nine participating groups have been denied requests to question federal witnesses because their questions were not linked to the specific evidence filed with the panel.
The Alberta Federation of Labour wanted to ask about refining oil in Canada and government views on keeping jobs in Canada, while the Haida Nation wanted to know about foreign interests in the project and federal budget cuts.
"Requests have not been granted where the nature of the questions does not relate to the evidence to be tested or to the List of Issues," the panel wrote in an August 30 letter to participants.
At least a dozen groups and individuals will be allowed to question the federal government representatives.
Several conservation and First Nations groups will forego attending the hearings in Prince George and focus on Prince Rupert, where the tanker port and shipping will be under scrutiny.
"We're going at Enbridge's witness panels in a way that we hope will give the joint review panel the information they need to make a learned decision," said Art Sterritt, executive director of Coastal First Nations, an alliance of aboriginal bands along the B.C. coast.
"It's such a vast array of half information and no information that it really is quite a flawed process at this time. And that's not the fault of the panel."
The Haisla Nation will also be there, said chief counsellor Ellis Ross, but the review process has already taken a "tremendous" amount of time and resources and the Haisla and other First Nations are already looking beyond the environmental assessment process.
"This is an environmental assessment, that's all it is. This is not a process to deal with aboriginal rights and title. This is not consultation and accommodation of aboriginal rights and title," Mr. Ross said.
"This is a really important part of the process for B.C. and Canada, but it's not the most important part of the process for aboriginals."