Enbridge Inc. chief executive Al Monaco wants British Columbia First Nations to give him a second chance.
With a regulatory approval in hand for its Northern Gateway oil pipeline, Enbridge will now go back to native groups that oppose the project to seek common ground in hopes of moving past early missteps, Mr. Monaco said Friday.
A federal joint review panel's (JRP) conditional recommendation that the $7.9-billion project go ahead puts his company two-thirds of the way to moving Alberta oil sands crude to the Pacific Coast for export, he said.
Following the decision on Thursday, some aboriginal leaders pledged to keep fighting Northern Gateway, and renewed warnings that they would go to the courts if Ottawa gives it final approval as expected by mid-2014.
"I think it's important to note that we do have significant First Nations support, but we as a company and our funding participants agree that we have to do more work on the First Nations that still have concerns," Mr. Monaco said in an interview at the company's Calgary headquarters. "That's going to be the second plank of what we do in the next several months."
Clearing the regulatory review phase has given the energy industry and Alberta governments renewed hope the province's oil will eventually find new markets abroad and command stronger international pricing. The Alberta-based sector currently relies on the U.S. Midwest for most exports. But due to transportation congestion and healthy U.S. supplies of oil, Canadian oil is often sold at steep price discounts.
The JRP's recommendation to build Northern Gateway came with 209 conditions, largely concerning safety issues, environmental factors and financial requirements.
But a bigger obstacle is land rights and other aboriginal issues at the centre of the public agenda in Canada, partly due to controversy during the Northern Gateway public hearings. This month, Vancouver lawyer Doug Eyford, appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to gauge First Nations' attitudes to resource development, said the need for engagement and consultation has never been greater.
Mr. Monaco said the company should have had its employees in the affected communities to build relationships and discuss concerns earlier in the process of designing the pipeline.
"You have another dynamic at play here, which is more general and less within our control. You've got some issues around oil sands, some issues around tankers and, of course, First Nations rights and title," he said. "But having said all that, I would have preferred to see a little bit more building of the trust before we got too far down the road with the specifics of the project."
Signs are already emerging that tensions with First Nations will be difficult to solve.
"I definitely worry about confrontation because the emotions run so high in our territory over this project," said Ellis Ross, chief councillor of the Haisla First Nation near Kitimat, B.C. "I don't want anybody to get hurt. Any type of action that proposes destruction or harm is really not acceptable to me."
Still, Mr. Ross said there is nothing that Enbridge will be able to do in the future to persuade the Haisla that the oil pipeline should be built. Two Haisla members have already proposed unspecified "violent actions" against the Northern Gateway project, he added. "I can't condone that. I had two meetings with band members to say that is not right," Mr. Ross said in an interview.
Legal experts have said Northern Gateway could become entangled in long-unresolved treaty talks in British Columbia, and at least one aboriginal leader, Miles Richardson, former chief commissioner of the B.C. Treaty Commission, said this month that the industry should play a role in finding solutions.
However, Mr. Monaco said it is unlikely his company could become involved.
"It's going to be very tough for us to address those issues. To be honest, I think the federal government is well aware of those issues, and what we can do is make sure that we're discharging our responsibilities as best we can," he said.
That includes making First Nations aware of employment, training and business opportunities as well as its offer of equity participation in the pipeline.
"It's roughly $1-billion in value, so I think that's important," he said. "The other thing that we can do is make sure that safety and environmental concerns are addressed. These are very important issues to First Nations."