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Enbridge faces grilling over Gateway

Pipeline company to square off with unions, First Nations this week

After a bumpy ride this summer, Enbridge will face a tough grilling this week on its $6-billion Northern Gateway project as public hearings enter their final phase in which interveners can challenge the company's evidence.

Enbridge will square off with unions and First Nations while big oilsands players, including MEG Energy, Cenovus, Suncor, Nexen and Total appear in a joint witness panel. The Alberta government is also prepared to appear for the "questioning" phase of the federal Joint Review Panel hearings to examine the economic benefits of the proposed $6-billion pipeline project to carry Alberta bitumen to Kitimat on the coast of British Columbia for export to China.

Critics like the Alberta Federation of Labour will argue Canada's refining industry will shrink - with a loss of 8,000 jobs expected - if the pipeline project goes ahead and diverts bitumen feedstock to China.

Opponents will also argue there is plenty of room in existing pipelines to handle growing bitumen exports.

Enbridge, however, is "very confident" going into the hearings as it will finally have a chance to respond to critics, said spokesman Ivan Giesbrecht.

"This is our first chance to speak; it's going to be a rigorous questioning, and we welcome that," Giesbrecht said. "We really feel the project will benefit both provinces and Canada. It's an opportunity for Canadians to listen in on a very democratic process."

Enbridge is also required, by noon today, to submit a highly critical U.S. report on the 2010 Michigan pipeline spill that saw 12,000 barrels of heavy oil spill into Kalamazoo River from its pipeline. Initially, the federal review panel said it would not take the report, but reversed it its decision mid-August.

Enbridge's project - twin pipelines, with one to carry 585,000 barrels of diluted bitumen west and another to carry the diluent - faced growing resistance, starting in late July when B.C. Premier Christy Clark raised the stakes. Her province will not approve the pipeline unless B.C. gets a share of the increased revenues Alberta will gain from shipping more bitumen, she said.

The federal review panel is jointly operated by the National Energy Board and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. The hearings run until Saturday, then resume Sept. 17.

Last week, Enbridge received approval from the Energy Resources Conservation Board Alberta for a new 400,000-barrel-a-day pipeline to bring bitumen from Fort McMurray to its Edmonton hub. The company says that project is not connected to the Northern Gateway.