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John Carruthers, president of Northen GatewayJOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail

For eight months, Enbridge Inc. has faced its critics, a long parade of dissenters and opponents who filled rooms across British Columbia and Alberta to argue against the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline.

In 68 days of hearings, 725 presented oral statements, and another 380 witnesses, on behalf of 64 first nations and other groups, presented oral evidence.

On Tuesday, at a Holiday Inn in Edmonton, Enbridge took its turn to fire back.

Gateway, the $6-billion pipeline that will, if it can gain approval from the federal panel reviewing it, promises to deliver Alberta crude to the Pacific coast, opening a major outlet to Asian markets and diminishing Canada's heavy reliance on the U.S. as its sole export market.

It is, Enbridge argued in opening statements clearly drafted for a pan-Canadian audience, a project every bit as important as the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Canadian Pacific railway. Those projects attracted substantial national debate. But "when constructed, [they] laid the foundation for significant benefits for generations of Canadians," Northern Gateway president John Carruthers said. "Our project is no different."

He sought to dismiss some of Gateway's critics as mere opponents of the oil sands, whose crude Gateway would carry. But, he said, Enbridge expects, over the course of several weeks of hearings that will extend through Dec. 18 – touching on spill response, pipeline safety, and the effect of spills on the coastal environment – to lay out a "path forward that will allow Canada to enjoy tremendous economic benefits while at the same time squarely addressing the concerns and reservations that have been expressed during this hearing."

To further bring home the point, Enbridge assembled a witness panel to argue the economic merits of the project, the first topic to be addressed in Edmonton. Among the panel's members were Enbridge executives; Roland Priddle, a consultant to Gateway and one-time chair of the National Energy Board, which is reviewing the project; and Robert Mansell, the high-profile academic director of the University of Calgary School of Public Policy, whose modelling helped established the benefits the pipeline might bring.

Mr. Mansell laid out the potential implications of not building Gateway: "Just imagine a situation where, if not for Northern Gateway, you had shut in 525,000 barrels per day for one year. That loss works out to $40-million a day, or $14.4-billion per year," he said.

That, of course, is assuming no other pipeline were built to take away Canadian crude – an assumption that comes at a time when numerous alternatives are being pursued by other companies, and even by Enbridge itself.

Yet it's clear Enbridge is seeking to present Gateway as a pipeline critical to the economic development of the country.

It now falls to skeptics to test those claims, a process that began Tuesday when Leanne Chahley, a lawyer for the Alberta Federation of Labour, opened questioning of the Enbridge panel. She sought to undermine predictions of economic gain for the country, which are largely predicated on an estimate that by opening a new market, Gateway will help lift the price of Canadian oil by $2 (U.S.) to $3 a barrel, providing tremendous and broad economic gains.

But, Ms. Chahley argued, "It's still a social science that you're involved in, economics. How much degree of certainty should we give it?"

Neil Earnest, a consultant who helped calculate the economic benefits of the project, said the tools used to crunch those numbers were the best available. "I am unaware of a more powerful analytical model for trying to answer the question," he said.

Ms. Chahley pressed the case:

Economics is "not science, like chemistry and biology, correct?"

Mr. Earnest, a chemical engineer, replied: "It is a highly mathematical exercise. And I guess, strictly speaking, mathematics is a bachelor of arts. So in that sense, perhaps you're correct."

And even on that front, he may have ceded too much: in most Canada universities, math falls within a bachelor of science program. Economics students, however, typically earn bachelors of arts.

Editor's Note: An earlier online version of this story gave an incorrect spelling of Neil Earnest's name. This online version has been corrected.

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