EDMONTON - Aboriginal drums thrummed and protesters shivered in a cold parking lot Tuesday as public hearings into the proposed $5.5-billion Northern Gateway oil pipeline got underway in Alberta.
"We're hoping to raise awareness that there are people in Alberta who are opposed to this pipeline as well," said Mike Hudema of Greenpeace. "What we heard in B.C. is almost unanimous opposition."
About 20 protesters carried signs and talked to an almost equal number of reporters as the hearings inside an Edmonton hotel commenced with a sweetgrass ceremony.
Enbridge (TSX:ENB) wants to build a 1,170-kilometre twin pipeline that would carry oilsands bitumen from Alberta to Kitimat in northwest B.C., where huge tanker ships would transport it to Asia.
The Alberta and federal governments have said the pipeline is crucial to building new markets for the country's resources, especially in Asia.
Chinese state-owned enterprises have invested $5 billion in Canada's resource sector. But without a pipeline to the coast, there's no easy way for large shipments of oil to reach China.
Harper has made it clear that he views China and its Asian neighbours as important new markets for Alberta oil. It's a point he has emphasized since U.S. President Barack Obama's administration turned down TransCanada's (TSX:TRP) $7-billion Keystone XL pipeline project that would have transported oilsands crude to refineries on the U.S. Gulf coast.
But environmental, aboriginal and social action groups say the risks of a pipeline rupture or oil tanker spill are too great. Not only would the pipeline cross mountain ranges, rivers and streams, it would fill more than 200 tankers a year that would have to navigate the treacherous waters of the Douglas Channel before reaching open sea.
"It's just short-term thinking," said protester Martin Tweedale. "What we need to be looking at is 20, 30, 40, 50 years down the line."
Tweedale acknowledged his position is in the minority in Alberta — but insisted he's not alone.
"I'm always surprised at the number of people who are sympathetic and have grave reservations about the whole development of the tarsands," he said.
Hudema said he's concerned that the open support from the Harper and Alberta governments suggests the hearing's conclusion is foregone.
"Will the over 4,000 people who have registered to speak at this hearing be heard, or is the decision already in?" Hudema asked.
The Edmonton session was slated to begin with a range of speakers from aboriginal bands.
"Our lands have a lot of medicine and game and (the pipeline) wrecks it," said Dale Alexis of the Alexis First Nation.
"Once that pipeline goes through, we won't be allowed to hunt on those lands, so it takes away a lot of our cultural activities. If we don't (start) fighting, nobody's going to stand up for us. We have to stand up for ourselves."
The hearings started in British Columbia earlier this month. They will travel across B.C. and Alberta for at least the next 18 months and perhaps more.