First Nations and environmentalists ready to block Enbridge's Northern Gateway

Interest in the future of Enbridge's $5.5-billion Northern Gateway proposal will rise next year, as public hearings are set to begin on Jan 10. Environmentalists and First Nations are preparing to do everything they can to prevent the project's progression, as they question not only the impacts of more bitumen being pumped from the oil sands, but also the potential consequences of a spill.

Starting in two weeks, an unprecedented 4,000-plus people – the vast majority environmental activists – will speak for a collective 650 hours at public hearings on the Northern Gateway project. The controversial pipeline would stretch for 1,170km from Brudenheim in Alberta to a new marine terminal at Kitimat in northern British Columbia, Canada.

As The Edmonton Journal reported, 130 First Nations are vowing to block the dual-pipeline proposal, including a large number whose land claims cover a significant strip of the pipeline route. Politicians in Ottawa expect hearings for the project, which is already almost a year behind schedule, to be done by the second half of 2012. The pipeline would go into operation in 2017 at the soonest.

The Northern Gateway project started nearly a decade ago as a market study on how to open up Alberta's oil sands to ocean trade with Asia. The company and the federal government are pushing for its approval, as they believe that Enbridge's Northern Gateway and the Keystone XL pipelines are vital to the future of the oil sands.

Enbridge President and CEO Patrick Daniel has even qualified the project as a “national imperative” worth $270 billion to the Canadian economy over its lifetime. But even if built, experts note that bitumen is expensive to extract and cannot compete with the many new shale oil plays – particularly in the Bakken oil basin where studies put the recoverable oil at 24 billion barrels – which have pushed U.S. production to its highest level in a decade.