The proposed Northern Gateway pipeline project has spurred fierce national debate about whether heavy oil spilled in sea water floats or sinks, how much disaster insurance pipeline projects should carry and the economic rewards of shipping oil sands bitumen across the ocean to foreign markets.
On Monday, forces for and against the $6.5-billion project will gather at a hotel in Terrace, B.C., for the beginning of two weeks of final arguments.
While it's by no means the end to the wrangling, it's the last opportunity for arguments to be heard before the joint review panel – an independent body mandated by the Environment Minister and the National Energy Board – withdraws to write a report that will recommend for or against the project.
The report, due by the end of year, will help shape a federal cabinet decision on whether to green light the project.
But even Ottawa's approval, if eventually granted, could simply mean the beginning of years of legal appeals by First Nations and environmental groups trying to stop the project.
Northern Gateway lies at the centre of broader debates about treaty rights, the relationship between provinces and whether oil supertanker traffic will become part of the view in the coastal city of Kitimat, B.C.
"Really, what it all boils down to is the risks are too high for the Kitimat region as well as the other First Nations regions," Ellis Ross, chief councillor of the Haisla First Nation, said of the project, which plans to run a pipeline through Haisla traditional territory as well as locate a supertanker terminal there.
The pipeline proponents, led by Enbridge Inc., have spent $500-million on environmental and engineering studies, public consultations and legal fees for the project, which would transport bitumen from Alberta to the West Coast and then ship it by tanker to markets in Asia and California.
Northern Gateway Pipelines Inc. will speak for two hours on Monday, arguing that the project is in the national interest because it offers a "once-in-a-generation opportunity" to connect growing supplies of oil sands crude to burgeoning Asian markets. Its submission also states the project is not likely to cause significant adverse effects on the environment.
"It's the most scrutinized project in the history of Canadian energy infrastructure development," said John Carruthers, president of Enbridge's Northern Gateway Pipelines.
The panel will hear from 35 intervenors, or outside parties, most of whom are not enthusiastic about the project. The B.C. government has said Enbridge hasn't presented enough details about how it would handle a spill. Mr. Carruthers said the company is looking for a meeting with Christy Clark's government to provide more information.
In Northern Gateway's written statement, the company lays out the economic benefits for the province, saying that as a result of Alberta and Saskatchewan oil receiving "fair market value," British Columbia stands to benefit from more than $18-billion of additional investment in its oil and gas industry.
The final arguments will also see Enbridge take issue with some of the 199 project conditions laid out by the National Energy Board. The company's written submission states that it agrees with most of the tough conditions, but others "would create unnecessary obstacles – primarily in relation to the timing or sequencing of activities."
For opponents, many other issues remain, including who will own the project. Chinese state-owned energy company China Petroleum & Chemical Corp., as well as Cenovus Energy Inc., MEG Energy Corp., Nexen Inc., Suncor Energy Marketing Inc. – a subsidiary of Suncor Energy Inc. – and Total E&P Canada Ltd. have spent money to help develop the project. Enbridge says that, for commercial reasons, other partners have asked not to be named.
"The Canadian public still doesn't know who the potential investors are, and they don't know who may end up owning this project in the end," said Robyn Allan, a Whistler-based economist and long-standing critic of the claims Enbridge has made regarding the economic benefits of Northern Gateway.