BUSINESS

Northern Gateway Pipeline: As Hearings Begin, Celebrities Become A Point Of Contention

01/11/2012 05:00 EST | Updated 03/11/2012 05:12 EDT
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VANCOUVER - Alberta Premier Alison Redford wants Canada to know the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline is a nation builder, but environmentalists are hoping — and Ottawa is fearing — the public will be listening to another Redford.

Hollywood heavyweight Robert Redford is among several stars who offered their wattage in the fight against the TransCanada's (TSX:TRP) Keystone XL pipeline in the United States, while drawing parallels between that project and the one that would thread through northern British Columbia.

It's also people like Redford and fellow actor Kevin Bacon that presumably prompted federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver to issue an open letter earlier this week deriding opponents of the project as environmental "radicals" and "jet-setting celebrities with some of the largest personal carbon footprints in the world."

A spokeswoman with the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council said it was vocal ordinary people that drew the stars in over the Keystone project, and the same might happen as the debate over Enbridge Inc.'s (TSX:ENG) Northern Gateway pipeline rages on.

"In the case of Keystone XL, it was scientists and business people and farmers and ranchers and ordinary, everyday people who were really concerned," said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, international director for the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council, which counts Redford and Bacon among its advocates.

"We're seeing the same dynamic with Northern Gateway. When you look at these more than 4,000 people signed up already to voice their concerns at the public meetings, these are community members who are really concerned about what an oil spill could do to the place where they go and harvest their shellfish.

"That, more than anything, is what drives higher profile people to be willing to take up an issue and really go out and try to help elevate it."

Environmental hearings into the project began Tuesday and were expected to continue Wednesay in the aboriginal village of Kitamaat, 11 kilometres south of the sea port where the oil sands bitumen would be loaded onto tankers for Asia.

In late November, Redford penned an Op-Ed while filming for several months in Vancouver.

He decried the world's dependency on oil, wagged his finger at the industry for lobbying U.S. President Barack Obama to approve Keystone XL and compared that situation to the project in B.C.

"Crossing the territories of more than 50 First Nations groups, slicing through rivers and streams that form one of the most important salmon habitats in the world and putting at risk the coastal ecosystem of British Columbia?" Redford wrote in the Globe and Mail.

"Americans don’t want to see that happen any more than Canadians do, and we'll stand by you to fight it."

A month earlier, Bacon narrated a short online video for the council that argued an oil spill could endanger B.C.'s white Kermode bear, also known as the "spirit bear."

"Enbridge pipelines have had more than 700 spills in the past ten years. The new pipeline would fill supertankers with the world's dirtiest oil," Bacon said.

"A single spill could blanket the spirit bear coast in a matter of days. What will become of the spirit bear?"

Canadian actor Adam Beach, who starred in Flags of Our Fathers, has also attended rallies against the project.

Robert Kennedy Jr., is a senior attorney with the council who also participated in the battle against clear-cut logging in Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island in 1993.

A-listers grabbed headlines protesting against the $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to Texas last year. Actors Daryl Hannah and Mark Ruffalo, "Shock Doctrine" author Naomi Klein and the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu were among its detractors.

The U.S. government recently decided to delay the project by at least a year.

About 60,000 people have already sent messages opposing the pipeline to B.C. Premier Christy Clark, while another 40,000 have emailed Enbridge President Patrick Daniel, said Casey-Lefkowitz. The mostly privately-funded council has 1.3 million members.

The $5.5 billion twin pipelines proposed for Gateway would flow crude from Alberta's oil patch to the West Coast for export to Asia from the proposed oil tanker port.

Casey-Lefkowitz said the council has taken a multi-phase approach towards its ultimate goal of defeating Gateway.

Celebrity help is just one small component that depends in large part how much time and effort those individuals are willing to give.

"We really just have the very beginnings of involvement with some of the higher-profile people we work with," she said.

Parachuting star power in will make an impact by attracting a segment of the population that otherwise wouldn't follow the issue, said Prof. Mark Wexler, with the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University.

"The individuals who get the highest amount of public attention get to slow (the project) down or claim greater legitimacy," he said.

"(It) doesn't mean you'll stop it, but boy, it'll take a lot longer when you've got a whole bunch of people clamouring."