12/12/2012 01:35 EST | Updated 02/11/2013 05:12 EST

Proponents and critics line up in watershed battle over Northern Gateway pipeline

KITIMAAT VILLAGE, B.C. - In the middle of an interview, Gerald Amos stoops to pick up his three-year-old granddaughter. Continuing, he hands her blueberries on demand.

The scene is a simple example of why the Haisla elder and former chief doesn't need words to explain his opposition to the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline that would deliver oil from the Alberta oilsands to a tanker port in Haisla territory.

It is his duty, he said, to protect this land for his granddaughter and for those who will come after her.

"Some people are very poor. All they have is money," said Amos, the port of Kitimat and the would-be terminus of the project visible in the distance from the community wharf, where colourful fishing boats bob in the water.

But Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway pipeline is only one project, the beachhead of what proponents and critics alike agree will be a watershed battle to come to open a tanker port to deliver oil from land-locked Alberta to the Pacific Rim.

If Northern Gateway fails to win approval, there will be other proposals.

"This is a highly strategic project for Canada, one of the most trade-dependent of the G8 nations, and oil is our most important export," says John Carruthers, president of Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines.

U.S. demand is decreasing, and their production is increasing, he said.

"It's very important for Canada to access the Pacific Rim market, effectively doubling the size of our market."

The British Columbia shore is a mere 8,000 kilometres from the insatiable energy market of China, worth an estimated $270 billion in growth to Canada's bottom line over 30 years and $2.6 billion in local, provincial and federal government tax revenues.

If the project goes through, following a rigorous review process that will continue next year, by 2020 an expected 3.5 million barrels a day will be produced in the Alberta oilsands.

The oil is there — Canada is second only to Saudi Arabia when it comes to proven reserves of crude, with an estimated 175 billion barrels of recoverable oil, 99 per cent of it from the Alberta oilsands.

But production has outstripped pipeline capacity, and Canadian producers are losing an estimated $30 a barrel because they are forced to sell to refineries in the U.S. midwest.

The force of the economic argument to build the pipeline aimed at opening Canada up to the Asian market is real.

But Nathan Lemphers of the Pembina Institute, a sustainable policy think tank, believes other factors at play in the debate over Northern Gateway will continue to hold force.

"At this stage in the game, I can't say that it's (a pipeline) inevitable," says Lemphers.

"Many people thought it was inevitable five years ago that a pipeline would be built and yet we're seeing significant and real opposition from a lot of concerned British Columbians and a lot of Canadians around these pipeline proposals and tanker traffic."

Several alternatives have been considered — some more viable than others.

Pipelines north, south, east and west have been suggested. But the Keystone XL pipeline has stalled in the Oval Office and offers for an unimpeded pipeline north are impractical at best.

Increased capacity carrying oil to the East Coast is in the works, but it's not enough.

Cenovus is already transporting 5,000 barrels a day by rail. The company president says he'd like to double that in the coming year, but railways are a limited and expensive, stop-gap measure at best.

Kinder Morgan is proposing an expansion of its existing Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to Metro Vancouver, more than doubling capacity. As the company moves toward a formal application for that expansion, opposition appears to be growing.

Vancouver city council has voted to oppose the expansion and some area First Nations have voiced objections.

Like Enbridge's Northern Gateway proposal, any plan that involves a tanker port on the West Coast faces the same hurdles, chief among them is the fear that an oil spill from the pipeline or from a tanker at sea could cause irreparable ecosystem harm.

On land, a pipeline must cross the Rocky and Coast mountain ranges. It would traverse the habitats of severely endangered mountain caribou and endangered white sturgeon. As it nears the coast, it would enter a lush forest that accounts for a quarter of the world's remaining temperate rainforest.

At sea, tankers half as long as the CN Tower is tall would navigate the ocean.

Even if all the precautions known to science were imposed, the oil itself is laden with controversy.

The bitumen and heavy crude stores found in northern Alberta are more difficult to extract than the light oil from other regions of the world. It is a resource-intensive form of production responsible for 6.5 per cent of the country's greenhouse gas emissions, and approximately one-tenth of one per cent of the world's emissions, according to Natural Resources Canada figures.

The oilsands have been the target of an ongoing, worldwide environmental campaign against the "dirty tar sands."

"Our concern is around how the oilsands are managed," Lemphers said.

"Until we can clearly say that the oilsands are responsibly managed, that we're operating those oilsands within environmental limits, it's difficult to just simply continue to build further pipelines that will further increase oilsands production."

The Canadian industry argues that Canada is the only oil-producing country that has committed to greenhouse gas reductions, and also has environmental, labour and human rights laws.

Carruthers says Enbridge and the oilsands industry have to do a better job of communicating with the public, and addressing those concerns.

However, neither the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers or Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver were available for an interview despite repeated requests over two weeks.

Oliver does speak publicly and often about the need for Canada to diversify its oil clientele, but in recent months has distanced himself from the Northern Gateway proposal.

But for the people living in the area around any proposed tanker terminal, the pros and cons of the any large discussion about an energy plan for B.C. boil down pretty simply.

"For this to be acceptable to the Haisla people, the Haisla would have to see a 100 per cent guarantee that there would be no spills," said Ellis Ross, chief councillor of the Haisla Nation.

"We all know that isn’t possible."