Enbridge Inc.'s proposed $6-billion, 728-mile bitumen pipeline from Alberta's oil sands to Kitimat, British Columbia, is meeting stiff opposition.

The Calgary-based energy company took a knock in July, when the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) dubbed the company "Keystone Kops" for its handling of a massive 2010 oil spill that polluted Michigan's Kalamazoo River. Now, five key stakeholders are fighting the firm's efforts to run a pipeline from the tar-sands fields to a port providing Pacific Ocean access. The latest volley came during federal hearings on Oct. 10, when B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake condemned Enbridge's refusal to commit to automatic shutdown technology in the case of a leak, instead opting for manual shutdown controls.

"Enbridge/Northern Gateway is putting off making commitments about including these systems in the pipeline design until after they get approval to proceed," Lake said. "The only way to protect British Columbia's interests is to ensure that these commitments are made up front so that everyone will understand how they intend to run this project."

Environmental groups, indigenous people, and local, federal and provincial opposition politicians supported by a host of newspaper columnists aren't waiting for such assurances. Opponents say the project is as good as dead, none more emphatically than the Coastal First Nations, an alliance of Aboriginal bands worried about potential spills along B.C.'s coast. Despite Enbridge pledging an additional $400 million to $500 million in monitoring safeguards, alliance Executive Director Art Sterritt is unconvinced about the firm's pipeline safety commitments.

"Enbridge will throw money at something if they think that will buy them a social license to do something," he says. "All they've done is up the ante to try and convince British Columbians that [the firm is] actually doing something that might be considered safe. British Columbians aren't buying it."

Enbridge claims the project would add $270 billion to Canada's GDP over 30 years, and B.C. would net $1.2 billion in tax revenues. But Premier Christy Clark says she will withhold government approval till the province gets a larger share.

The Northern Gateway pipeline would be "the largest private-sector infrastructure project in B.C. history," worth 3,000 construction jobs and 560 long-term jobs, says Enbridge spokesman Todd Nogier. Engineering consultants have benefited already, he adds.

"We've had something like 200 consultants weigh in on engineering and environmental work. It's going to mean a lot of work for people going forward."

Federal Liberal Party opposition critic Joyce Murray says the biggest obstacle facing Enbridge is its oil-spill record. July's NTSB report indicated that Enbridge's Edmonton pipeline control center took more than 17 hours to realize a major pipeline fracture had occurred at its pipeline in Michigan. The breach ultimately would spill over 840,000 gallons of heavy-crude bitumen into the Kalamazoo River, resulting in one of the most costly land-based spills in U.S. history. Murray says that had a profoundly negative impact on Canadian public opinion.

"Our natural resources are important to us here in Canada, but the public wants them to be developed and utilized responsible and sustainably," Murray notes.

While acknowledging the Kalamazoo spill as "a dark period in our history," Nogier says Enbridge "has been operating what is the largest and most complex liquids-pipeline system for a period of six decades." Citing plans for increased staff and new monitoring technologies in the control room, more in-line inspections and "thousands of integrity digs" to ensure a more rapid response in the event of a spill, Nogier believes incidents like the Kalamazoo spill will not be replicated along the Northern Gateway pipeline.

Enbridge's technical experts are expected to face cross-examination until mid-December. A report is due a year later, and Canada's federal government is expected to issue a final decision on the pipeline early in 2014.