PRINCE GEORGE, B.C. – Chris Peter is not a lawyer, an oil and gas executive or a professional environmentalist.
He’s not on anyone’s payroll and when he appeared last week before the joint review panel weighing the future of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, he was not waving the flag of any particular camp or cause.
Yet Peter has spent hundreds of hours poring over thousands of documents in order to try to understand what it is that Calgary-based Enbridge wants to build across northern British Columbia.
“You’re working inside the process to try and make the joint review panel make an informed decision,” said Peter, 62, after spending several hours over two days questioning experts employed by Enbridge about the project.
“Lots of people are protesting in the streets but the joint review panel is not allowed to pay any attention to them. So this is the appropriate avenue for endeavouring to influence their decision.”
For several hours over two days, the founder of C.J. Peter Associates Engineering fired questions at a panel of nine experts surrounded by a dozen or more lawyers and support staff. From a row of seats a few feet away, the company president looked on.
Aside from a handful of members of the public on the first day, the public gallery has been filled for the most part by the entourage of industry and its full-time opponents.
Above them, a tulle belle and swag hangs from the roof, a reminder that the Columbus Community Centre on the outskirts of Prince George, B.C., is more accustomed to toasting the bride and groom than hosting testimony under oath.
Peter didn’t set out to let the proposed 1,100-kilometre twin pipelines consume his life.
The energy conservation engineer, who has dedicated his career otherwise to more efficient use of fossil fuels in building applications, is opposed to the pipeline.
The 30 to 60 million megatons per year of greenhouse gases that will result from the oil that will course through the line runs counter to everything he and his associates have tried to accomplish, he said.
“And the fact that was coming through my back yard was something I could not just take lying down, so at some considerable personal expense, in terms of sacrifice of time and money, we’ve gotten involved in this,” he said.
A lot of local people want to get involved, but they lack the tools, he said.
“Because I’m a trained engineer, I have some tools in my toolbox to address some of the issues regarding the design and operation of the pipeline.”
There’s also a long family tradition of working with aboriginal peoples all over the world.
His grandfather was the chief medical officer at the mines in Johannesberg for 40 years and the stories that made their way to Peter’s ears have clearly affected his outlook. He speaks passionately of the black South Africans who suffered in the mines for a fraction of the pay their white counterparts received.
He travelled to Edmonton to take part in final hearings on the economics of the proposed project, and he’s taken time off to make an oral presentation to the panel and will take more time off to make his final argument.
And all of that has come out of his own pocket.
“It’s a real juggling act just to keep your own business afloat while doing this,” Peter said. “My wife is subsidizing it to the extent that she’s working full time and I am keeping my business barely afloat.”
The focus of his questions for the Enbridge experts was the steel that will be used to build the pipeline, and the current plans to use what is called a Category 1 steel, rather than a Category 2. Peter fears the Category 1 steel will be more susceptible to fractures during construction, when it may be laying on the ground in cold northern temperatures.
Enbridge has practising engineers “who are trying to do their very best to make it a safe project,” he told reporters after wrapping up his questioning, but he’s not convinced.
“It could fracture,” Peter said.
He’s disappointed that some of the information he sought was allowed to be redacted — blacked out — by the company for competitive reasons, but overall he was pleased.
“I’m incredibly impressed by the fairness of the process and quite proud to be a Canadian, in a country where we can address such a complex and divisive issue in such a civilized manner.”
Then he had to run. He has seven construction projects underway, and several overdue invoices to send out.
Hearings continue this week in Prince George.