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The proposed Energy East pipeline would ship Alberta crude across six provinces to New Brunswick and cost about $12-billion.JEFF MCINTOSH/The Canadian Press

The Quebec port town at the centre of the debate over TransCanada Corp.'s $12-billion Energy East pipeline says it will likely hold a citizens' referendum before deciding whether to back or reject the project.

Cacouna, the 1,800-person municipality pegged as one of two export terminal sites for TransCanada's Energy East pipeline project, is moving toward such a plebiscite, Mayor Ghislaine Daris said Wednesday. It would be the second time in a decade the community has voted on a large-scale TransCanada project proposal.

"We sense that the population is divided," said Ms. Daris, who previously stated that she in favour of economic development but not at any price. "If we, [as a council], support the project, for sure we also want the people's opinion. We did a referendum in 2005 and I think that it's a legitimate thing to do."

Following a memorandum of understanding signed in 2004 between Cacouna and a TransCanada-Suncor partnership for a proposed liquefied natural gas import terminal, residents voted 57 per cent in favour of the project. The companies later abandoned the plan after market conditions soured.

The municipality is now negotiating a new agreement for TransCanada's Energy East pipeline proposal, Ms. Daris said. She said her priority in the talks is guaranteeing local employment.

The company wants to link the 4,500-kilometre span, carrying western crude east to Saint John, N.B., to a new deep-water export terminal and storage facility in Cacouna near Rivière-du-Loup. The terminal would be key for shippers trying to reach nearby international markets, TransCanada has said.

Cacouna is just across the St. Lawrence River from a national marine conservation area known for its beluga whale population. Environmental activists fret that construction and operation of the terminal will affect the whales, whose population is already in decline.

Others say the potential economic benefits of the project for Quebec outweigh any potential risk to the animals.

"For decades we've waited for a big industrial project to come to the port of Cacouna, but it never came," said Mario Dubé, 65, who worked at the harbour as a stevedore for years before he retired. "For me, this project is very important. When you live in the region, which is Bas-Saint-Laurent, and you don't have any work and you're forced to go elsewhere to find it, something like this is welcome. To me, it's about earning a living where your roots are."

In response to a question Tuesday about local opposition to the marine terminal, TransCanada chief executive officer Russ Girling said: "The folks in Cacouna would like to see a terminal built there. It'll create a significant amount of economic activity as well as probably draw in further economic activity."

TransCanada is currently doing underwater testing to assess the impact of its plans on the belugas and other marine life. Mr. Girling said that if the project proposal is found to have a material negative impact on the local belugas, then the company will design the project "in a different way."

"At the end of the day, our objective is to build a project that is acceptable and workable for all parties," he said on a conference call. "We're committed to that, not just in Cacouna, but right across the pipeline."

Shares in TransCanada rose 3 per cent Wednesday on the Toronto Stock Exchange. They've gained 17 per cent this year.

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