Environment Minister Terry Lake wants to hold Enbridge’s feet to the fire on its proposed Northern Gateway pipeline.
But B.C. Liberal government scrutiny of the project at a national hearing in Edmonton Thursday was extinguished moments after it started.
Lake and former Attorney-General Geoff Plant — hired as a legal strategist by the B.C. Liberal government — flew to the Alberta capital as a political demonstration of this province’s demands.
A B.C. government lawyer was shut down and quickly ruled out of bounds while Lake and Plant were on a flight to B.C. soon after.
Reached late Thursday, Lake defended the government’s line of questioning.
“We want to make sure we ask Enbridge questions pertinent to our environmental concerns, particularly,” Lake said.
“We wanted to get at how the company was structured and what happens if damages (from a spill) exceed their capabilities.”
Elisabeth Graff, the lawyer for the province, was stopped moments into her cross-examination Thursday of pipeline builder Enbridge.
Graff was asking Northern Gateway president John Carruthers about the insurance for oil spill disasters when panel chairman Sheila Leggett intervened.
Leggett reminded Graff the Edmonton hearings are to focus on the economic impacts of the project and that disaster preparedness is being dealt with at upcoming hearings in B.C.
“We have, as the panel, taken great pains to set these issues up in a way that we believed would be logical and would be in a manner so that we wouldn’t have any overlap,” said Leggett.
The exchange happened late Thursday afternoon. By then, Lake and Plant had left the hearings to catch a flight home.
In an interview, New Democrat critic Rob Fleming called it a botched photo-op that gives British Columbians little confidence the B.C. Liberals can protect their interests.
“They were chided for being off-topic and unprepared,” Fleming said.
“They got it wrong. We’re heading down the track to almost certain approval from (Prime Minister) Stephen Harper.”
But Lake said government officials were told earlier by Enbridge that questions about corporate structure and liability were suitable for the review panel hearing in Edmonton.
“It sends a message, no question, to the National Energy Board, Enbridge and even people in B.C. that B.C. is engaged and serious about this issue,” Lake said.
The B.C. Liberal government has set five conditions, including environmental protection and a share of revenues, in order to receive this province’s approvals.
Graff is expected to resume Friday with questions on the corporate structure of the project.
Earlier Thursday, at a news conference held at the Vancouver Airport, B.C. Premier Christy Clark announced Plant had been hired to oversee the questions the province will ask Carruthers and six Enbridge (TSX:ENB) economists at the hearings in Alberta and the upcoming ones starting next month in B.C.
“He’s going to be making sure that we get the answers to the questions that we need,” said Clark.
“(He) is one of the finest legal minds in our country. He understands the environment, he understands the government, he understands politics, and our coastline. And the protection of our land base here in British Columbia is deeply important to Geoff.”
Enbridge is seeking federal approval to build a $6-billion pipeline to ship oilsands crude from the Edmonton area to Kitimat on the B.C. coast, where it would then be shipped to markets in Asia.
In Edmonton, Lake told reporters he came in person to send a message that if there’s a catastrophe, British Columbia residents will not be left holding the bag.
“Our questions will focus around liability insurance coverage, corporate structure and ensuring British Columbians wouldn’t be left holding any kind of bill if in fact there was an adverse event,” said Lake.
Plant said the corporate structure is of particular interest, given that Calgary-based Enbridge has created a separate entity to deal with the pipeline.
“I’m not worried that they’re creating a shell (entity), but I don’t want them to create a shell, and the people of British Columbia don’t want to face the prospect of someone building a pipeline that isn’t in a position where they can be held directly accountable for some harm caused.”
Leggett’s panel has been holding hearings in B.C. and Alberta throughout the year. Critics, including environmentalists and some First Nations, say that given the line will cross wilderness area and almost a thousand waterways, the risk is too high at any price.
Enbridge estimates that reaching markets in Asia via Northern Gateway would boost Canada’s GDP by $312 billion over 25 years — about $9 billion a year — and bring in $98 billion in government revenue.
A study commissioned by British Columbia estimates $81 billion in tax revenue will be accrued by the pipeline over 30 years, with $36 billion going to the federal government, $32 billion to Alberta and just $6 billion to B.C.
The project has sparked numerous demonstrations and heated debate in B.C.
The joint panel must submit its final report to the federal government by the end of 2013.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government is endorsing the need for infrastructure to get oil to the growing Asian market, but has said the Northern Gateway decision will be based on science, not politics.