Hearings playing out in Edmonton, Alberta, this week pit two common and often-opposing ideologies against each other over the proposed $6.1 billion Northern Gateway pipelines: One says the risk of ecological damage is offset by the economic reward while the other ascribes to the idea that the reward doesn’t justify the risk.

The proposed pipelines would send bitumen diluted in natural gas condensate from the western Canadian interior at Bruderheim, Alberta, to Kitimat, British Columbia, near the coast, while the other pipe would send the condensate in the other direction. Proponents say the project will create hundreds of jobs along the route and at the ends of the pipelines and links Canadian oil sands to the Asian market. Opponents say the benefits are exaggerated and the risks are downplayed while those who have the most to gain –- Asian refiners and the overseers of the project –- have the least to lose in the event of an accident or a less-than-expected economic benefit.

The Enbridge Northern Gateway Project Joint Review Panel hearings are the second in a series being held in the region through the end of January. The current round that started Monday and runs through Sept. 28 is being held in Edmonton.

The pipeline would send the fuel to Asia for refining. The company that wants to build and manage the pipelines, Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. (TSE:ENB), is at odds with environmental groups and native tribes and faces widespread and possibly growing disapproval in British Columbia –- home to the country’s pristine coastal Great Bear Region, which contains the remaining northernmost temperate rain forest inland and several marine sanctuaries.

"They [Enbridge] haven't done the studies that are necessary to truly understand the impacts of these projects on coastal First Nations and the ecosystems they rely upon, not only for salmon, but for all the resources along the whole of their territories," Brenda Gartner, who represents the First Nations coalition of tribes of coastal British Columbia, told The Calgary Herald in a report published Thursday.
Enbridge had hired environmental consultants to testify in the hearings, and they didn’t help the company’s cause much when they were unable to say what the environmental impact on the region’s important salmon fishing industry would be in the event of a spill of the bitumen-infused natural gas condensate. One of the consultants said his team is working with data provided to them from the company. Enbridge said it submitted about 20,000 pages of information, which it says is more than enough for the panel to make a decision.

Environmental advocates and tribes are not impressed.

On Tuesday, a lawyer for the Haisla First Nation, which claims most of the land of the pipeline, questioned Enbridge’s claim that the project would generate increased revenue of $1.5 billion by 2018, according to CBC News. The lawyer, Hana Boye, also said the company’s claim that the project would lead to a 6.5 percent increase in Western Canada’s oil supply by 2020 is a figure provided by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, an industry advocate. The lawyer also pointed out the company is using a lower estimate of 4.4 percent in publicly available communications to its shareholders.

For its part, The World Wildlife Federation’s Canadian affiliate announced Wednesday it has recruited a number of famous Canadians in its crusade to block the pipeline and counter what it believes is the government’s efforts to portray environmentalists as radicals.

In January Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said the following in a public statement: “Unfortunately, there are environmental and other radical groups that would seek to block this opportunity to diversify our trade.”

To counter the stigma that environmentalists opposing the pipeline project are on the fringes, the WWF recruited Olympic hockey team captain Scott Niedermayer, author Joseph Boyden, economist Jeff Rubin, war veteran and author Trevor Greene, musician Tony Dekker and VanCity credit union as advocates for WWF’s cause.

Meanwhile, recent polls suggest the closer the public is to the project and to the ecological zone on the British Columbia coast, the more they’re opposed to it.

In January, an Ipsos-Reid poll showed support for the pipeline project at 48 percent. In August a Strategic Communications poll had that support at 19 percent. Also last month an Abacus Data poll showed that in Alberta the strong support for the project was 30 percent while in British Columbia the opposition to the project was 40 percent. A similar disparity in views was reflected in the same poll with regard to the nationwide economic benefit.

As the polls have shifted, so too has the political support for the project, with British Columbia MPs backing down from their vocal support earlier this year. An MP for suburban Vancouver, James  Moore slammed Enbridge’s record after the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board slammed the company’s handling of a 2010 Michigan oil spill that dumped 840,000 gallons of crude into the Kalamazoo River.

“Their employees performed like Keystone Kops and failed to recognize their pipeline had ruptured and continued to pump crude into the environment,” said NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman in the announcement of the finding in July.