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Enbridge's pipeline spills, PR headaches and corporate history

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Northern Gateway: a Public Relations Headache


Imagine yourself dropping through a layer of clouds over central Alberta, floating as smoothly as a dandelion seed, until you approach a cluster of trees and houses: the 1,155-resident town of Bruderheim, just one hour northeast of Edmonton. It's a farming community best known as the site of a famous meteorite crash in 1960 – but today it has become synonymous with a pipeline.


It's here that the proposed Northern Gateway begins, a pipeline whose journey is depicted in a computer animation of the planned route released by Enbridge. The animated fly-over is useful not only in helping understand the proposed project's route from Alberta to the B.C. coast – but also offers a window into some of the controversies the company has faced.


From Bruderheim, the animation then swoops over the countryside as more small towns scroll by: Bon Accord, Mayerthorpe, White Court, Fox Creek. Its first river crossing, followed by what – if approved – would be an engineering feat: traversing the majestic Rockies. The crossing seems but a gentle undulation as the Northern Gateway traverses the mountain range. Several more rivers. The Coastal Mountains, again effortlessly ascended, conclude the Northern Gateway's journey as it finally arrives in the 12,000-strong seaside community of Kitimat.


The stylized fly-over may have, understandably, glossed over the nearly 1,000 streams and rivers along the pipeline's route – the animators also granted trees and skyscrapers the same scale.


But it's at the coastal port in Kitimat where this simple, one-minute illustration became one of Enbridge's greatest public relations headaches yet.


Replete with oil sands crude bound for Asia, the animated tanker ships set out westward from port, hitting the open seas toward the horizon. The video ends with the rippling, serene waves of the wide Kitimat Inlet. Problem is: there is no such inlet – Kitimat is sheltered from the high seas by more than 1,000 km of scattered islands.


Critics immediately seized upon the Enbridge animation, accusing the firm of deliberately erasing the labyrinth of tightly nestled islands through which supertankers would have to navigate, creating what they see as a massive risk for oil spills and accidents. The company replied that the video was “for illustrative purposes only” and “broadly representational, not to scale” - a disclaimer it later added to the video itself.


For opponents, however, the bell had been rung, the damage done, galvanizing already weakening public opinion of the project which had taken a hit after the U.S. published a scathing report on the company's oil spill record.


In some ways, the controversy over the animation perfectly symbolizes the fight over Northern Gateway – both Enbridge's enormous public relations efforts, its perceived missteps and challenges, and the strident opposition of its critics.

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