KITIMAT, B.C. – A record turnout is expected today as residents of the north-coast British Columbia town of Kitimat cast ballots in a plebiscite over the Northern Gateway pipeline project.
Other than to gauge the public temperature around the heated issue of the proposed oil pipeline, it’s unclear — even to Kitimat council — what approval or rejection of the non-binding vote will mean.
Warren Waycheshen, Kitimat’s deputy administrative officer, said more than 900 people voted in advanced polls, much higher that the 470 early ballots cast before the 2011 municipal election.
Kitimat plays a central role in plans for the pipeline. Not only is it the end of the line for the pipeline, but there’s a proposal for a two-berth marine terminal and tank farm to store the thick crude before it’s loaded onto tankers for shipment to Asia.
The $6.5-billion project would see two pipelines, one carrying oilsands’ bitumen from Alberta to Kitimat’s port, and a second carrying condensate — a form of natural gas used to dilute the bitumen — from Kitimat back to Alberta.
Until this vote, Kitimat has remained neutral in its opinion on the pipeline project. It didn’t take part in the joint-review process, which heard from hundreds of people before a federal panel approved the project with 209 conditions.
The federal cabinet is expected to release its decision on the project by June.
A key reason for holding the vote was to fulfil a 2011 promise made by all municipal election candidates in Kitimat to poll citizens on the pipeline project.
Kitimat Mayor Joanne Monaghan has said the council will wait for the outcome before taking a stand.
But it was clear during a debate earlier last month that even Kitimat councillors were uncertain what the decision will mean.
Coun. Corinne Scott said during the March council meeting that it seems clear the community remains split, no matter what the outcome.
Coun. Phil Germuth said the vote is not on the project itself, but on the joint-review decision.
“We’re asking about 209 conditions that nobody understands fully. Even Enbridge doesn’t fully understand them.”
But Coun. Edwin Empinado said the results would give the district “more bargaining power” in the future to deal with the company and the federal government.
Regardless of its meaning, the vote has consumed the time and money of pipeline opponents and Enbridge, the company behind Northern Gateway.
Northern Gateway’s campaign has concentrated on the promise of 180 permanent, direct, local jobs worth $17 million and more spinoff jobs for contractors and suppliers.
The company emphasized its commitment to safety and the environment, saying that the National Energy Board Joint Review Panel, which held two years of hearings on the project, has made many of the company’s voluntary commitments a mandatory part of the conditions for approval.
The main opponent, the local environmental group Douglas Channel Watch, maintains that the risk from either a tanker accident or pipeline breach is too high for the small number of jobs the pipeline will bring to the community.
Even the question, as chosen by the District of Kitimat council, was controversial, because it focused on the 209 conditions placed on the project by the Joint Review Panel: “Do you support the final report recommendations of the Joint Review Panel (JRP) of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and National Energy Board, that the Enbridge Northern Gateway project be approved, subject to 209 conditions set out in Volume 2 of the JRP’s final report?”
The plebiscite has also raised tensions between the District of Kitimat and the nearby Haisla First Nation, which is adamantly opposed to Northern Gateway.
In a letter to local media, Haisla Chief Coun. Ellis Ross said that the decision to hold a vote at this late date was a “slap in the face” for all the work done by the Haisla on the project.
The Haisla Nation dedicated time and money toward testing Northern Gateway’s evidence and claims about safety and environmental protection, while the district stood by and did nothing, the letter stated.
“The review process for this project has already left town, with the district taking no position on the project. Still undecided on what its views are on the project, the district now proposes to conduct a poll, instead of examining the facts in the JRP process.”
Murray Minchin of Douglas Channel Watch released his groups’ advertising budget this week showing it spent $14,362.92 on ads, supplies and other campaign expenses. He challenged Enbridge to release its ad budget.
Ivan Giesbrecht, a spokesman for Northern Gateway, said in an email response that the company “will discuss our advertising spending after (the plebiscite) is over this weekend.”