When Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared this summer the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline is "in the vital interest" of Canada, critics could be forgiven for suspecting the fix was in, that the public hearings reviewing the project were nothing more than a formality.
However, based on the hearings so far in Edmonton it would be unfair to dismiss the process as a rubber stamp. Conducted by a joint review panel from the National Energy Board and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, the sessions have been a thorough, at times painstakingly so, dissection of the $6-billion project that would pump 525,000 barrels a day of Alberta's bitumen to the West Coast port of Kitimat for shipment by tanker to Asia.
The Edmonton portion of the hearings is focused on the economic impact of the project and has so far sat for five days with 10 more days on the agenda beginning next Monday, allowing a list of critics and supporters of the project to cross-examine Enbridge officials in minute detail over company estimates that the pipeline would boost Canada's gross domestic product by $312 billion over 25 years.
The hearings not only present critics with an opportunity to grill Enbridge officials, they also give groups such as the Alberta Federation of Labour a platform to present their own arguments that by shipping raw bitumen offshore, the pipeline represents a loss of refining jobs in Alberta.
The hearings are giving us not just Enbridge's argument for the pipeline but the critics' counter-arguments. The joint review panel is hearing from every conceivable corner in this debate before submitting its final report at the end of 2013, not that any actual debate has broken out on the floor of the hearings. Because the joint review panel is a quasi-judicial body with the power to swear in witnesses, it strives to maintain a decorum more befitting a court.
What the panel and the public are therefore seeing is a cold, bloodless look at the pros and cons of the most contentious energy project in the country.
Emotions might run a little higher in October and November when the hearings move to Prince Rupert and Prince George to examine the much more hot-button issues of pipeline safety, spill response and the effect of a spill on the coastal environment.
If Enbridge officials are feeling frustration with the pressure being applied by pipeline critics, they really have no one to blame but themselves. Enbridge badly tarnished its own reputation by allowing more than three million litres of oil to spill into Michigan's Kalamazoo River in 2010, opening itself up to condemnation by the U.S. government that likened company officials to the bungling Keystone Kops of silent movie fame.
Given the emotions the 1,200-kilometre project is stirring on both sides of the debate (and both sides of the Alberta-B.C. border), we need to judge this project calmly and coolly. That's what the joint review panel is offering us: a dispassionate examination of whether the Northern Gateway pipeline is indeed in the "vital interest" of Canada.
The Edmonton Journal, Wednesday Sept 12 2012