The B.C. government made its debut at the Northern Gateway pipeline hearings on Thursday with a new high-profile lawyer appointed to represent British Columbians' interests, a signal that the province will no longer steer clear of the process.
But the first day of questioning was derailed after less than 15 minutes, when review panel chair Sheila Leggett adjourned the hearing until Friday to give the B.C. legal team more time to review a recently filed document the lawyers appear not to have read.
The legal team left Vancouver Thursday morning with fanfare, with Premier Christy Clark announcing the appointment of former attorney general Geoff Plant to stickhandle the file. Mr. Plant joined the legal team and Environment Minister Terry Lake at the hearings in Edmonton.
Enbridge Inc.'s controversial Northern Gateway pipeline proposal has been a tough political topic for the Clark government. The Premier announced in July that her government will not endorse the $6-billion project unless a series of demands are met, including a "fair share of the fiscal and economic benefits."
Still, the government has been under fire for failing to take a more aggressive role in the hearings – it gave up the option of a joint hearing, and did not provide evidence before the hearing deadline. Mr. Plant, who served in a previous B.C. Liberal government, was named in a bid to signal that the current government is taking the hearings seriously.
The Premier said the appointment ensures that B.C. "has absolutely the best legal advice. We're bringing the 'A' team to make sure we are doing everything we can to get the answers that British Columbians need."
Mr. Plant told reporters his first task is to examine the company's structure to ensure that Enbridge can't avoid responsibility if an environmental disaster occurs.
"Enbridge is a huge and complex and very successful company. I'm not worried that they're creating a shell, but I don't want them to create a shell," he said. "The people of British Columbia don't want to face the prospect of someone building a pipeline that isn't in the position where they can be held directly accountable for some harm caused."
At the hearings, however, the B.C. legal team was challenged on its line of questioning.
Elisabeth Graff, a lawyer with the B.C. government, began asking the president of Northern Gateway about the insurance policies Enbridge carries against spills and other incidents. But Ms. Leggett intervened, pointing out that discussion of compensation available in case of an accident would be held at meetings scheduled for Prince George in October.
Enbridge responded that its executives were prepared to discuss the topic – but wondered if perhaps Ms. Graff had failed to read a recent submission to the review panel on exactly that topic.
"Just by the questioning, Ms. Graff may not have seen the response … yet that was filed Sept. 4," said Bernard Roth, a lawyer for Enbridge.
To provide time for the B.C. team to get up to speed, Ms. Leggett adjourned the hearing until Friday morning.
Mr. Plant, speaking to reporters after the adjournment, maintained that B.C. was not unprepared, but the order of the topics was simply being debated. "I can assure you it's not a question of preparation," he said. "All the questions that are relevant will be asked."
Mr. Lake said later in an interview that the B.C. team had been told in advance that its line of questioning was appropriate for the hearing Thursday. "I'm a bit frustrated," he said. "It is unfortunate if we were given the wrong information from Enbridge"
Rob Fleming, the B.C. New Democratic Party environment critic, said the province has come too late to the process to make a difference in the outcome, and called the adjournment an embarrassment for B.C. "The day was a disaster for the 'A' team."
In a contract that expired in June, Mr. Plant was registered as a consultant lobbyist for the Gitxsan Treaty Society, which had tentatively negotiated a deal with Enbridge on the pipeline before backing away amid a storm of opposition. Gordon Sebastian, a negotiator with the Gitxsan Treaty Society, applauded Mr. Plant's appointment to represent B.C., saying he is optimistic the province will now have a better understanding of first nations' interests in the pipeline project.