The fight over whether Enbridge Inc.'s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline gets built is happening on two fronts.
The National Energy Board's hearings on the $5-billion project are plodding along, listening to advocates and opponents, with its recommendations to the federal government not expected for at least a year.
Meanwhile, a higher-profile battle is being waged in the court of public opinion, which I think is unlikely to influence a Conservative government that's determined to push through a conduit for exporting oil sands crude from Alberta through northern British Columbia to Asia.
Nevertheless, opponents are recruiting some high-profile Canadians to their side. The Globe and Mail reports that the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has signed up several prominent people to try to counter the government's claim that radical activists are behind attempts to stop the project.
Retired NHL and Olympic hockey star Scott Niedermayer got on board last May to help launch Canadians for the Great Bear, aimed at protecting the stretch of rainforest that's home to the rare white-coated Kermode bear.
Niedermayer, known as Captain Canada since leading the team that won Olympic gold in Vancouver in 2010, joins several more Canadians who're coming out publicly against the project. They include writer Joseph Boyden, economist Jeff Rubin, army veteran Trevor Greene, who survived an ax attack that split his skull while serving in Afghanistan, MTV host Aliya-Jasmine Sovani, singer-songwriter Tony Dekker of Great Lake Swimmers and VanCity, Canada's largest credit union.
"The group raised both expert and personal concerns about the risks of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline to Canadian values, jobs, and the environment," the WWF said in a news release. "The range of views reflects the growing, mainstream Canadian opposition to this proposed project."
The proposed pipeline traverses mountainous terrain and hundreds of rivers and creeks. The WWF and others worry a spill of the tarry oil sands crude, which is diluted with chemicals to let it flow through the pipeline, could have catastrophic consequences in the event of a rupture.
Likewise, the risk of a spill if large oil tanker runs aground near the planned export terminal at Kitimat is too big, they believe.
"This is a bunch of people from all different walks of life who don't have a pre-existing organized position to adhere to," WWF Canada president Gerald Butts told Globe's editorial board Wednesday.
The Conservative government has claimed the project approval process was being hijacked by foreign interests and people with an agenda, the Globe noted.
"Unfortunately, there are environmental and other radical groups that would seek to block this opportunity to diversify our trade," Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver wrote in a January, 2012, open letter. "Their goal is to stop any major project no matter what the cost to Canadian families in lost jobs and economic growth."
Butts said attempts to paint opponents as radical ecologists offended many people and prompted them to come forward.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's spokesman said Canadians are free to express their concerns about this or any other project.
"That is not the concern of the government," Andrew MacDougall told the Globe via email. "We are opposed to people who seek to obstruct and delay review processes just for the sake of delay."
Oliver's spokesman, Christopher McCluskey, told the Globe the project would be evaluated independently, based on scientific evidence.
"Without getting into the specifics of any project, we believe it is in Canada's interests to diversify markets for our exports," he added.