Rupertites giving their 10-minute oral statements on the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline to the Joint Review Panel members.

Rupertites giving their 10-minute oral statements on the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline to the Joint Review Panel members.

Anger at federal government as most speakers skip Prince Rupert Enbridge hearings

Frustrated with changes to review panel process, most registered speakers stay home rather than give their oral statements to the panel.

Anger at the federal government was palpable at the latest Enbridge Joint Review Panel hearings held in Prince Rupert this week.

These hearings were the first opportunity for average residents to give their opinion on the Northern Gateway Pipeline project to the panel members without being constrained by the procedural rules that caused so much frustration for pipeline opponents when the panel first visited Prince Rupert in February. But the vast majority of people who signed up to speak didn’t even bother to show up.

Almost all of the speakers who did come to have their 10 minutes in front of the panel said that the federal government’s move to give itself final say over the project’s fate, had robbed the review process of its credibility.

The change is one of many in the Conservative’s budget omnibus bill still making its way through the House of Commons. It would change it the rules so that cabinet must give its approval if the National Energy Board decides to deny a project. Before, cabinet only needed to give approval if the regulator approved a project.

It’s a small change, but enough to shake pipeline opponents’ confidence that the panel’s decision will have any impact on the future of the project.

“I do not trust this Conservative government. They have undermined the integrity of this panel and the joint review process by declaring that the panel’s recommendations won’t really count. I believe that this has deterred many people who are opposed to the pipeline from giving their opinions,” Christina Nelson told the panel members.

“The perception is that the panel does not have the power to make any negative recommendations, so why would they want to waste their time coming forward?”

Nelson may be right. Out of the 189 people who registered to give a oral statement to the panel while they were in Prince Rupert, only 40 people actually did. What was supposed to be over five days of hearings was reduced down to less than one-and-a-half.

“I’ve called many of these people myself to discuss why they’re not here, and I want you to know that due to the continuous onslaught of our federal government, they feel that their voices are not valued and that there is no point in voicing dissent. I supposed that was the intention of Mr. Harper and he has succeeded,” says Prince Rupert city councillor, Jennifer Rice, who gave the last presentation to the panel.

While there was plenty of anger for the federal government, speakers did voice their opinions on the project to the panel, none of them positive.

One very common criticism of the project and Enbridge, is the company’s record on spills. Speakers frequently cited the fact that between 1999 and 2008 the company had 610 different oil spills, and a pipeline break that poured 19,500 barrels of oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010.

Speakers argued that this record shows that despite the company’s assurances of safety, leaks are inevitable. Which puts all of the many tributaries the pipeline crosses in jeopardy and by extension the rivers and watersheds they feed into.

“The potential for ruining commercial, recreational and food fishing exists. If this goes through we are waiting for a disaster to happen . . . with their track record it seems inevitable that Northern BC will face a Enbrige oil spill along the Northern Gateway sometime in the near future,” Marc Joseph-Page told the panel.

Representatives from Enbridge and the Northern Gateway project attended the hearings, but were not allowed to respond to the assertions being made about their spill record during them. After the hearings ended, Enbridge representative Paul Stanway told the The Prince Rupert Northern View that the 610 figure is misleading.

Out of those 610 spills, says Stanway, only four of those were considered moderate to serious. The rest were minimal and easily cleaned up; often taking place inside a Enbridge Facility and being as little as only a cup of oil being spilled. That said, the company understands why people are concerned especially after what happened in Michigan.

“That was the most serious accident in Enbridge’s history. The clean-up has gone well though, and when we get to the end of the process, it’s our aim that it will be a textbook case of a clean-up that has been done properly and completely. We’re committed to do that, the idea that we’re blasé about things like this is ridiculous,” says Stanway.

Besides, says Stanway, the technology the new pipeline would use has greatly improved since the Michigan pipeline was built. They hope that they will be able to convince more people of that once the formal hearings begin where the technical aspects of the project will be discussed.

Another common criticism of the project is that the potential environmental and social risks to the region greatly outweigh any economic benefit the pipeline might bring.

Many First Nations speakers told the panel that the pipeline was threatening to destroy their entire way of life by tainting local seafood.

Many speakers were experienced sailors and fisherman who doubted the safety of the tanker route, particularly during the hurricane force winds that can occur out on the water.

Other took issue that since bitumen is heavier than water it will sink, making traditional oil clean up techniques ineffective and predicted that balls of tar would be appearing on the north coast’s shores for years afterward.

“I know that any spill in our territory would be devastating to the environment; to all marine life, plants, birds and us as humans. The negative impacts of a spill is mind boggling and the ripple effect of this catastrophe would be extensive. Our environment is too important and we all have a responsibility to take care of it for future generations,” said Tsimshian member, Joycelynn Mitchell.

Enbridge says that the risks associated with a spill are being vastly overstated.

“The rhetoric around a potential accident – which we think the chances of are extremely remote – has become incredibly inflated. The idea that a single accident could destroy the entire environment of the north coast forever, that is just scaring people to death for no reason. That scenario is not even possible,” says Stanway.

For many speakers, the project just doesn’t offer the region much more than temporary construction jobs. The oil will be refined over in Asia instead on here in Canada, meaning that all the money that will be made from the pipeline will be made in Alberta and China while BC is left to clean up if something goes wrong.

“There are minimal benefits and monstrous risks,” says Ian Dobson.

Stanway admits that once a pipeline is in the ground, it isn’t exactly a labour-intensive operation. But says that BC can expect over 500 new full-time jobs over the route of the pipeline, and not just a couple in Kitimat.

Speakers criticized the project because if a spill was to happen out at sea, Enbridge wouldn’t be legally responsible for it, the shipper would be. Many of them saw this fact as serious lack of accountability for those who are pushing them into taking a big risk with their environment.

“If this project does go ahead – although I pray it does not – then I would fully expect all of Enbridge’s employees and people sign up and be first on the beach when the time comes to clean this. I want their children to suffer the same way that ours will. I don’t think its fair that we should bear all of the risk and then all of the health cost as well. It’s absolutely ridiculous,” says Des Nobles, a member of the regional district board.

While Enbridge employees may not be bringing their children down to help clean up beaches, Stanway says the company is paying into funds meant to cover the cost of cleaning a spill. But he says that it is unreasonable to change the rules to hold Enbridge accountable for a marine accident when other industries do not face the same risk.

Enbridge, he says, is a transportation company, it wouldn’t own the oil that would go through the pipeline. If there was a tanker accident, to hold it legally responsible would be like blaming CN Rail for containers that it delivered to the port falling off their ship at sea. Changing the rules to target them specifically would be unfair.

These were the last hearings to be held in Prince Rupert for now. The formal hearings when both sides will be able to argue the specifics of the project plan will begin in the coming months.