VANCOUVER _ An aboriginal businessman and former motivational speaker has teamed with the British Columbia billionaires best known for their ownership of the Vancouver Canucks to pitch an alternative to the struggling Northern Gateway pipeline.
Calvin Helin, CEO of Eagle Spirit Energy, said the project would include a pipeline linking the Alberta oil sands to a tanker terminal on the B.C. coast. It would also include an upgrader to refine the heavy bitumen oil produced in the oil sands to a lighter, more conventional and less controversial product, he said.
But Monday's announcement, which also included the Aquilini Investment Group, the company that owns the Canucks, raised as many questions as it gave answers, such as where the tanker port would be located and how many First Nations have signed on.
``We're at the beginning of a process,'' Helin said. ``Our goal is to earn the social licence to operate.''
The new proposal was endorsed by two small B.C. aboriginal communities.
The Nee-Tahi-Buhn band has 135 members, about 55 of them living on the band reserve near Burns Lake. The Stellat'en is a band with about 500 members, half of them living in the band community near Fraser Lake.
The Nee-Tahi-Buhn had signed on to support the Northern Gateway, said Chief Ray Morris, but have withdrawn that support.
``We saw a better project, more inclusion from the get-go,'' Morris said. ``With Enbridge, it was a lot of years of struggle. That goes back 12 years, when they first came around.''
Helin said Eagle Spirit cannot reveal the number of aboriginal groups on board because it would breach non-disclosure terms.
``I can tell you with great confidence that we have a substantial number of communities that are interested,'' Helin said.
``It doesn't mean we have a deal yet. It means we have heard their concerns. ... We will continue to consult with them and work with them and take our direction from them.''
The Eagle Spirit Energy proposal is the third alternative plan to surface since Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. (TSX: T.ENB, Stock Forum) ran into resistance from environmentalists and First Nations in B.C. to its proposed Northern Gateway project.
Media mogul David Black has proposed a $13-billion oil refinery for Kitimat to process oil before shipping it overseas. And Texas-based Kinder Morgan has filed an application to triple the capacity of its existing Trans Mountain pipeline between Alberta and its refinery in the Vancouver area.
The latest blow for Northern Gateway came last weekend, when residents of Kitimat _ the proposed the would-be tanker port and the community with the most to gain _ voted against the pipeline in a municipal non-binding plebiscite.
Despite the challenges, a federal review panel recommended approval of the pipeline in December, subject to more than 200 conditions. The federal government is expected to announce a decision in June.
The estimated cost of the Northern Gateway has risen to approximately $7 billion.
The Eagle Spirit project, with its upgrader refinery, will be substantially higher but company officials did not say how much the Aquilini Investment Group _ a private enterprise that owns the Canucks, a real estate development and construction arm, blueberry and cranberry farms and a golf course _ would be putting up for the venture.
David Negrin, president of Aquilini Group, said numerous oil and gas companies have already contacted Eagle Spirit about the project.
``But the one thing that's most important here today is that we get the First Nations on board first,'' he said.
Helin and his colleagues appear undaunted by their substantial time delay or their lack of experience in the oil and gas or pipeline business.
Dan Hisey, former chief operating officer of Alaska's Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. and the senior technical adviser on the project, said any mega-project of this size would entail significant resources.
``Any company that was going to venture into this would have to retain the expertise of folks that can be contracted and hired,'' Hisey said. ``This group would bring those resources together, world-class resources.''
The project has no timeline, no definitive route and no customers that were divulged. What it does have is a chance of getting First Nations that have vehemently opposed Northern Gateway to get on board, suggests Helin, until now a motivational speaker and author of seven motivational books, including ``Dances with Dependency: Out of Poverty through Self-Reliance.''
``What's wrong with First Nations wanting to have some economic power? I believe that's part of the unfinished business of Canada,'' he said.