CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - A Western Canadian native group has filed a motion to delay hearings into Enbridge Inc’s C$5.5 billion ($5.2 billion) oil pipeline to the Pacific Coast, and says Ottawa is wrong in its assessment that the proposed project would bring economic benefits.
Coastal First Nations, a coalition of nine aboriginal communities near the terminus of the planned oil sands pipeline, have asked regulators to adjourn hearings before a scheduled January start so Enbridge can respond for a second time to its requests for information.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and several officials in his government have identified Northern Gateway, which would open up a new supply route to Asia, as important to the country’s economic interests, especially after the United States imposed a delay on the Keystone XL pipeline to Texas.
The motion comes after brief talks in September with Enbridge Chief Executive Pat Daniel, but neither signal a softening in its opposition to the proposal, Coastal First Nations Executive Director Art Sterritt said.
The two sides had talked about wanting “fresh start” in relations, and Daniel had agreed to investigate if hearings before a joint review panel could be delayed, he said.
“We felt that the fresh start would provide us the opportunity to show Enbridge that the project should not go ahead,” he said. “That’s exactly why we wanted a fresh start with them. Coastal First Nations remains unequivocally opposed to Northern Gateway and our ban on tanker traffic on the coast remains in effect.”
Delaying the proceedings would allow discussions to take place without a looming deadline, he said.
The Coastal First Nations is among several aboriginal groups in British Columbia who have said they will not support the project because they fear potential oil spills on land or in coastal waters, where tanker traffic would increase.
Canada’s government and energy industry say the project to increase returns for oil sands production by allowing access to markets across the ocean where refiners that pay more for oil than they do in the United States.
It would move 525,000 barrels a day of tar sands-derived oil 1,177 km (731 miles) to the port of Kitimat, British Columbia from Alberta. An adjacent line would carry condensate, a light hydrocarbon used to blend with heavy oil so it can flow in pipelines, back to Alberta.
Sterritt said he disagreed that pipeline access allowing shipments to Asia is essential to national interests.
“We live in a continent that has a deficit of oil. We don’t see why oil needs to be exported off the North American continent when the U.S. is importing oil,” he said.
For its part, Enbridge will would not comment on Coastal First Nations’ notice of motion or its discussions with the group, spokesman Paul Stanway said.
“We remain committed to the consultation process and to the regulatory review. We’re talking to a number of first nations and we will continue to talk to them,” he said.
Enbridge has offered aboriginal groups an equity stake in the pipeline as well as community development money as a way to garner support. Daniel has said talks with some are going well, but has not identified which ones support Northern Gateway.
In its motion, filed this month, Coastal First Nations said Enbridge responded in October to several information requests, including potential impacts on aboriginal interests, effects on the environment and plans for emergency response. The responses were inadequate and require better explanation, it said.
Annie Roy, spokeswoman for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, which is part of the joint review panel, said the panel will study the motion but would not give timing for a response.
Reporting by Jeffrey Jones; Editing by Frank McGurty