There was a time, not all that long ago, when it appeared that the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project would get a much easier ride in the public arena than Enbridge Inc.'s Northern Gateway proposal.
It's not looking that way today.
Kinder Morgan Energy Partners' $5.4-billion plan – tripling the capacity of the current Trans Mountain system to get scads of oil sands-derived crude to the Pacific – is in the early stages of its regulatory review and the opposition in British Columbia is girding for battle.
This is now standard for any major oil pipeline project, regardless of whether it cuts new routes or makes use of old ones. Despite its best efforts, Kinder Morgan is headed into its own era of contention.
It's evident in the flood of information requests submitted to the National Energy Board by 122 of the intervenors in the process. The deadline for the first queries into the Trans Mountain application was Monday.
Intervenors represent a Who's Who of, well, just about anyone in the region: cities and towns in B.C., including Vancouver and Burnaby at the terminus of the line; Canadian and U.S. indigenous bands; environmental groups; the governments of B.C. and Washington; individual residents; and Elizabeth May.
A taste: The Surrey, B.C., Teachers' Association wants to know why the expanded pipeline must run along the banks of the Fraser River rather than along the existing right-of-way in that area and what its schools' responsibilities are in an emergency. Vancouver's 85 pages of requests include queries about marine spill response, recovery of diluted bitumen and earthquake risks – battle-worn issues for Northern Gateway. Alberta's Samson Cree Nation wants to know why traditional native territories were not taken into account for inclusion in the engagement process.
In total, the NEB received applications from 2,118 individuals and organizations wanting to participate in the hearings. It told 1,250 applicants they could only write letters. Another 468 were excluded from even writing in.
The legislation that the Harper government rejigged two years ago to limit the number of intervenors in regulatory hearings for such projects has already sparked a constitutional challenge.
It seems to matter little that Kinder Morgan made few public pronouncements in the early stages of its planning, preferring to work quietly while the spotlight was trained on Northern Gateway.
In its process, as Enbridge sought to win the hearts and minds of aboriginal groups and other communities in B.C., Ottawa painted the project's opponents as hippie puppets of foreign interests bent on ruining the national economy. Its aggressive approach probably backfired by emboldening critics.
Now, an expected federal approval of Northern Gateway in the coming weeks will do little to dampen the resolve of opponents.
Even Kinder Morgan Canada president Ian Anderson said the feds' forceful stand was not helpful, and that debates over the issue of moving crude westward should be held at the local level.
To its credit, Kinder Morgan spent two years trying to build relationships along its route, holding meetings and open houses across B.C. and Alberta. It has pledged to keep talking, even if the project wins approval.
The work may indeed have won it some support, or at least better understanding, at the local level. But it will not remove the target from its collective back when it comes to municipal governments, green groups and others in the Lower Mainland staunchly opposed to pipelines, or perhaps more accurately, the diluted bitumen that would flow through them.
Certainly Enbridge's recent experience with the Line 9 reversal project in Southern Ontario and Quebec showed that the energy industry faces spirited push-back to pipelines, even with the pipelines that are already built.
Kinder Morgan has a month to respond to the intervenor requests as part of the NEB review, then there is a period for aboriginal intervenors to apply to provide oral evidence. There is a second round of requests in early July. The Trans Mountain expansion review must be completed by July 2, 2015.
That's a hard deadline as dictated by the new federal rules, but plenty of time for project opposition to reach Northern Gateway proportions.