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Energy and Resources How a grassroots movement raised thousands and dealt Northern Gateway a symbolic blow

Competing campaign signs are seen in Kitimat, B.C. on Saturday, April 12, 2014, as voters cast their ballots in the town's plebiscite on the Northern Gateway pipeline project.

Robin Rowland/THE CANADIAN PRESS

When advertisements for the $7.9-billion Northern Gateway pipeline project started appearing around Kitimat, B.C., last month, the non-profit environmental group Douglas Channel Watch hardly seemed ready for a fight. The group had just $200 in its bank account, no campaign team and was going up against pipeline giant Enbridge Inc.

But soon donations began to trickle in, with some people handing over crumpled $20 bills to campaigner Murray Minchin as he pounded signs into neighbours' lawns. "We had no actual campaign organized at all until we saw how much resources Enbridge was pouring into it," Mr. Minchin, a long-time Kitimat resident, said in an interview Monday. "Nobody knew that was coming."

Within weeks the organization had raised $14,000 and put together such an effective campaign that on Saturday nearly 60 per cent of voters said 'No' to the pipeline. The rejection stunned some observers and raised questions about a project that appears to lack strong support even in the community that stands to benefit most if it goes ahead.

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The twin-pipeline project would ship crude oil from Alberta to Kitimat, and condensate – a product used to thin oil for transport – in the other direction.

Kitimat, a community located 650 kilometres northwest of Vancouver, would be the marine terminal for the project and would have 165 full-time jobs when the project is complete.

On Monday, Enbridge executive vice-president Janet Holder played down the results, noting the non-binding plebiscite is part of broader, ongoing public consultations.

"It's been our intention for some time now, months prior to this [plebiscite] being talked about, to travel to communities along the [pipeline] right-of-way, and other communities in B.C. … to provide citizens the opportunity to understand what this project is about, why it is necessary and what we are doing to ensure we protect the environment," Ms. Holder said, adding the company's plans have not changed as a result of the vote.

Enbridge spent about $6,500 on print advertisements and $3,100 on radio spots leading up to the plebiscite, a company spokesperson said.

Many residents voted in favour of the project and Enbridge "sees that as a positive thing," Ms. Holder added.

Still, a 'Yes' vote would have been a positive development for Enbridge as well as the Harper government, said Steven Paget, analyst at FirstEnergy Capital Corp. in Calgary.

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"It's symbolically important, but there are cities, towns, native communities all along that route that aren't having a vote, yet are nonetheless impacted as well. It's not just dependent on one," Mr. Paget said. "But if the vote had gone the other way, it would have been something that the government could hang an approval on."

For Mr. Minchin and others, the plebiscite, which brought out 62 per cent of voters, marks a turning point in the long-running battle over the project, which is high on Prime Minister Stephen Harper's resource-development agenda but faces stiff opposition from First Nations and environmental groups.

Mr. Paget has yet to factor potential earnings from the contentious project into his financial outlook for Enbridge, showing his view that Northern Gateway remains anything but a sure thing.

In December, a federal joint review panel recommended Ottawa approve the project, subject to 209 conditions. In March, former environment minister and current CIBC executive Jim Prentice agreed to lead discussions with First Nations on the project.

Enbridge has long committed to a 10-per-cent equity stake for aboriginal groups along the pipeline route and there have been reports that Mr. Prentice has talked about increasing stakes for would-be partners.

Ms. Holder would not comment on that prospect, saying she did not wish to negotiate through the media.

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"What we are willing to do is continue to engage with all the aboriginal communities that are impacted by this project and see how we can further our relationships and partnerships with them," she said.

Pete Erickson, a hereditary chief with the Nak'azdli Band and a member of the Yinka Dene Alliance – which opposes the project – said he was not aware of specific overtures from Mr. Prentice but doubted that greater incentives would sway his group's position.

"I know of no direct contact from Mr. Prentice to our area – and actually, incentives did not form a big part of our decision," Mr. Erickson said.

The Yinka Dene Alliance is opposed to the project based on concerns including potential impact on salmon runs and seismic risk and such concerns can't be addressed by increased financial incentives, Mr. Erickson said.

With a file from reporter Jeffrey Jones in Calgary

Editor's Note: An earlier online version of this article incorrectly said former environment minister Jim Prentice joined Enbridge to work on aboriginal relationships. In fact, Mr. Prentice is a current CIBC executive and he has agreed to lead discussions with First Nations on the project.

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