Public hearings on the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline resume on Monday in the coastal community of Bella Bella, where the federal review panel was met by protesting students and teachers from the local first nations school.
Staff at the Bella Bella Community School organized the protest to greet the panel members as they arrived on Sunday. Some of the students have launched a hunger strike as well to protest against the plan by Enbridge to transport Alberta's oil-sands crude across B.C. to reach markets in Asia and California.
Once the hearings resume, it's another day to chip away at a list of some 4,300 members of the public who want to make oral submissions. B.C. first nations have been among the leading opponents of the pipeline, but the people who want to address the panel span the globe, according to the project proponent.
Changes announced last week to the environmental assessment process could trim that list, however.
The streamlined review process announced in the federal budget last Thursday, which will be retroactive, is supposed to ensure that major projects such as Enbridge's $6.6-billion pipeline will be reviewed in a two-year timeframe.
A spokesman for Enbridge said Sunday it's not clear just how that will apply to this application, which is coming up on the second anniversary this spring.
"The minister has spoken about shortening the process, it will be interesting to see how that will be accomplished," said Paul Stanway, Enbridge's spokesman.
"One of the issues that has bothered us is the number of people who have registered to make oral statements," he said. "We need to set some guidelines for this, about who should be heard by the joint review panel. It surprised everybody, it's the first time we've seen an organized attempt to overwhelm the process. We need to make these decisions in a timely manner."
Those oral submissions began last week. The formal hearings, where expert witnesses will be called, are not set to start until the fall. Final arguments are expected to be heard next spring, three years after the application was submitted.
The B.C. government applauded the new limits on environmental reviews, saying too many federal reviews in the province have been bogged down, leaving economic development in limbo.
But the provincial government has also avoided taking a clear position on the controversial Northern Gateway project. Despite the B.C. Liberal government agenda to position B.C. as the gateway to Asia, there has been a significant environmental backlash in B.C. to the pipeline itself, and to the expansion of oil-tanker traffic off the coast that would come with the project.
The provincial environment minister, Terry Lake, said Sunday his staff is still trying to find out what the new rules will mean for the Enbridge project.
The current hearing schedule is poorly planned for the B.C. Liberal government, which must hold a provincial election in the spring of 2013 in the midst of the final stages of the hearing. The opposition B.C. New Democratic Party is opposing the pipeline, but the government still has not decided if it will even make a submission on the project.
"We are very pleased to see the move to a one process, one project approach. This is needed in British Columbia to unlock sustainable development," Mr. Lake said. However, he added that the Enbridge hearing is federal jurisdiction and he would not comment on whether the hearings should be allowed to continue at the current pace.
"In a provincial process, if we were inundated with submissions from around the world, that would be a concern to me. But this is not our process and it is up to the federal government to determine if that is appropriate or not."