PRINCE GEORGE, B.C. - The environmental assessment panel examining the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline returns to British Columbia on Tuesday, for final hearings that will put the project's environmental impact and emergency planning under a microscope.
The hearings slated to begin in Prince George will see the proponent, Enbridge Northern Gateway (TSX:ENB), scientists and project critics questioned under oath about the evidence they've submitted to the panel.
Enbridge officials said they look forward to their return to B.C.
"As the project proponent, we intend to demonstrate to British Columbians and to all Canadians through the examination of the facts and science upon which this project application is based that there is a path forward that provides for prosperity while protecting the environment," Janet Holder, the company's vice-president of western access, said in a statement released Friday.
"The (panel) is the appropriate forum for this confidence-building exercise with Canadians."
But company officials may take a back seat to federal government representatives, who will be subject to questioning for the first time since hearings began earlier this year.
Several participants in the panel hearings have been so keen to get answers on everything from regulatory changes to government budget cuts that the panel has already tried to rein in the cross-examinations.
"It will be the first set of hearings where the federal government will be on the stand. That will be interesting," said Nikki Skuce, of ForestEthics, one of the groups taking part in the hearings scheduled in Prince George and Prince Rupert over the next few months.
Officials from Aboriginal Affairs, Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans, Natural Resources and Transport Canada will be answering questions on evidence those ministries have provided to the panel as it weighs the project.
The Conservative government has been roundly criticized for its support of a tanker port on the West Coast that would give Canadian oil producers access to Asian markets.
Nine participating groups have been denied requests to question federal witnesses because their questions were not linked to the specific evidence filed with the panel.
The Alberta Federation of Labour wanted to ask about refining oil in Canada and government views on keeping jobs in Canada, while the Haida Nation wanted to know about foreign interests in the project and federal budget cuts.
"Requests have not been granted where the nature of the questions does not relate to the evidence to be tested or to the List of Issues," the panel wrote in an Aug. 30 letter to participants.
At least a dozen groups and individuals will be allowed to question the federal government representatives.
Several conservation and First Nations groups will forego attending the hearings in Prince George and focus on Prince Rupert, where the tanker port and shipping will be under scrutiny.
"We're going at Enbridge's witness panels in a way that we hope will give the joint review panel the information they need to make a learned decision," said Art Sterritt, executive director of Coastal First Nations, an alliance of aboriginal bands along the B.C. coast.
"It's such a vast array of half information and no information that it really is quite a flawed process at this time. And that's not the fault of the panel."
The Haisla Nation will also be there, said chief counsellor Ellis Ross, but the review process has already taken a "tremendous" amount of time and resources and the Haisla and other First Nations are already looking beyond the environmental assessment process.
"This is an environmental assessment, that's all it is. This is not a process to deal with aboriginal rights and title. This is not consultation and accommodation of aboriginal rights and title," Ross said.
"This is a really important part of the process for B.C. and Canada, but it's not the most important part of the process for aboriginals."
The pipeline would transport diluted bitumen from the Alberta oil sands from Bruderheim, Alta., across northern B.C. to a tanker port planned for Kitimat, B.C.