Enbridge Inc. will keep trying to win public approval for its Northern Gateway oil pipeline to the Pacific coast from Alberta even with the clock winding down to a crucial regulatory decision for the contentious project in the coming weeks, its chief executive officer said on Friday.
Calgary-based Enbridge has sought for years to convince British Columbians, including numerous First Nations communities along the proposed route, that the $6.5-billion project will be as safe as today's technology allows, and CEO Al Monaco conceded it has not been completely successful.
A federally appointed Joint Review Panel is due to rule on Northern Gateway before the end of December following two years of regulatory proceedings that included hearings in numerous locales in Alberta and B.C. Some were marked by protests from environmentalists and others who warned of oil spills on land and in coastal waters.
"The key thing is that we focus first on making sure people understand the safety and environmental aspects of the project," Mr. Monaco said at a business forum at the Rocky Mountain resort of Lake Louise. "They get the benefits. It's our job to do a little bit more work on that part [safety and environment] of the equation."
The energy sector is looking to Northern Gateway and other high-profile pipeline proposals as a way to get their oil sands-derived crude to markets that offer better returns than the traditional export destinations in the United States. The line would move 525,000 barrels of oil a day from the Edmonton area to Kitimat, B.C., where it would be loaded onto tankers and shipped to markets in Asia.
The company and industry analysts say that access to such new markets will help chop the deep discount Canadian heavy oil fetches versus U.S. and international benchmarks.
Northern Gateway and a rival project, Kinder Morgan Canada's proposed Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion, had been a source of tension between the governments of Alberta and British Columbia, with B.C. Premier Christy Clark saying her province would take on the bulk of the risks but get little of the financial benefit. In early November the two leaders announced they had agreed on a framework for talks that could smooth the way for the developments.
Some of the most vocal opponents of Northern Gateway have been aboriginal people in B.C., including coalitions such as the Coastal First Nations and Yinka Dene Alliance, which contend that the environmental risks and threats to traditional culture are too great.
Mr. Monaco rejected the notion that Enbridge had failed to make its case with First Nations, however. The company has offered native communities an equity stake in the pipeline and community development money as incentives to back it.
"We actually have a large degree of support. If you look at people who have signed equity agreements with project Gateway, I think that's numerous. There are 26 First Nations in total that have signed up, so I think that's very positive," he said.
"Obviously not everybody is necessarily going to agree with the project and we still have some work to do to try to bring people on side."
He declined to say if the company would consider delaying construction to win more public support, if it wins regulatory approval.
The Joint Review Panel's decision is crucial, but not final. The federal cabinet will have ultimate say.
Mr. Monaco said one mistake Enbridge made that has hampered its relationship with communities in B.C. was to use contractors as the company's public face rather than its own employees in the many years of consultation leading up to the looming regulatory decision. During that period, pipeline applications became a major battleground for the debate over the environmental impact of energy developments, especially the Alberta oil sands.
"Remember, at the same time, you had a pretty significant change in the environment out there around the focus on energy projects," he said. "So I would say that's probably the big thing – making sure we have our own ambassadors out in the field."
Enbridge expects to have an updated cost for the project in the first part of 2014, though the magnitude of any increase is not yet known, he said.