Jameson Berkow May 7, 2012 – 6:22 PM ET | Last Updated: May 7, 2012 6:43 PM ET
CALGARY — As if Enbridge Inc. could not hear the cries of protests over the Northern Gateway pipeline at its annual meeting in Calgary last year, what will hit the company in Toronto on Wednesday is expected to be even louder.
Public hearings into the $5.5-billion project to bring crude oil from Bruderheim, Alta. 1,172-kilometre west to the Pacific coast town of Kitimat, B.C. — and from there to energy-hungry markets in Asia — have since begun, serving as a focal point for criticism. Canada’s largest crude transporter has also opted to hold this year’s AGM in the country’s financial capital, where many groups opposing the pipeline command a strong presence and where the risk of a public relations backlash affecting the company’s share price is heightened.
‘A safe estimate I’d say there is going to be three to four hundred people, but I wouldn’t doubt it if there were twice that’
As members of the Calgary-based Enbridge executive team make the trip to Toronto this week, a train carrying some of Northern Gateway’s most vocal critics is close behind. Hundreds of protestors are expected to rally outside the AGM, with a “Freedom Train” set to arrive Wednesday carrying dozens of members of the Yinka Dene Alliance, a group of British Columbia First Nations opposed to the project. Motivated by concerns over Northern Gateway’s potential to damage the native territory through which it runs, or from the tanker fleet that will flood into Kitimat harbour once the pipeline is completed, First Nations have formed the core of resistance to the pipeline thus far.
This year, however, the Alliance argues the issue now extends far beyond the realm of indigenous people alone.
“It is going to be much larger [this year] not only for indigenous people but I think for the regular citizens of Canada and British Columbia,” Terry Teegee, vice-chief of the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council and member of the Alliance, said in an interview from Prince George, B.C.
A rally gathered, March 26th, at the Vancouver Art Gallery to protest the Enbridge Pipeline project. First Nations were joined by enviromental groups and labour organizations.
Mr. Teegee said the recent decision from Joe Oliver, federal Minister of Natural Resources, to shorten the environmental review process required for major energy infrastructure projects has galvanized more widespread support for the Alliance’s cause.
“For this protest I have been getting calls from different indigenous groups from Ontario… so a safe estimate I’d say there is going to be three to four hundred people, but I wouldn’t doubt it if there were twice that,” said Mr. Teegee, who will attend the protest in Toronto.
“This isn’t just an indigenous issue, this is a real attack on our democratic process. We see [the shortened review process] as a rubber stamping of the actual project.”
Todd Nogier, a spokesperson for Enbridge, said the company was aware of the planned protest and was “taking all precautions as would be appropriate,” though he declined to comment on any plans to mitigate any potential disruptions.
Enbridge shares have so far not suffered as a result of the growing opposition movement. In fact, they have gained nearly 4.5% since the start of 2012. However, some shareholders are becoming concerned the stock will not be safe for much longer if management continues to avoid discussing the financial consequences any further resistance may cause.
Toronto-based mutual fund firm NEI Investments, whose subsidiary Ethical Funds, is an Enbridge shareholder, will present a resolution at Wednesday’s meeting asking management to prepare a report that will “discuss how First Nations’ opposition will factor into the final decision to pursue Gateway” and “detail how the company will mitigate the operational, reputational, and legal risks of such opposition.”
Lengthy, expensive lawsuits against the National Energy Board (NEB) process, delays in construction due to protests or blockades and the risk to Enbridge’s reputation, should the company remain unable to address the concerns of the more than 80 indigenous groups involved in the project, all represent legitimate causes for investor concern. While those concerns have yet to translate into a share price slip, Enbridge continues to forge ahead with its goal of gaining regulatory approval by early next year amid mounting opposition.
“Should the NEB approve Gateway despite First Nations’ opposition, the risks facing the project will not diminish,” the NEI resolution said.
“Enbridge has not explained to investors how it will mitigate these risks if the current level of opposition remains.”