Enbridge sees few obstacles to expand Alberta-Wisconsin oil pipeline

CALGARY – Enbridge Inc. is seeking U.S. approval to pump more crude through an Alberta-to-Wisconsin pipeline — a process the company expects will be easier than the one TransCanada Corp. is facing with its Keystone XL pipeline.

“I think I’d point out that this is a little bit of a different situation,” Enbridge CEO Al Monaco told analysts on a conference call Wednesday to discuss the company’s first-quarter results.

“We’re talking about a relatively limited amount of work here from an environmental point of view and from an equipment point of view.”

Enbridge (TSX:ENB) won’t be laying down any new pipe to boost the Alberta Clipper pipeline’s capacity from 450,000 barrels per day to 800,000 barrels per day by 2015. Rather, capacity will be expanded by adding new pumping equipment to the existing line in two phases.

Keystone XL, on the other hand, involves building new pipe through the American heartland. Much of the controversy has been centred around Nebraska, where TransCanada was forced to reroute the line to avoid ecologically sensitive areas.

TransCanada (TSX:TRP) hopes to obtain its presidential permit — a requirement for pipelines that cross the Canada-U.S. border — some time later this year after years of delay.

Enbridge already has a presidential permit for Alberta Clipper, which it is looking to amend.

“Obviously there’s no questions as to routing implications, because the pipe is already there. It’s in the existing right of way and what we’re talking about is some additional station work,” said Monaco.

While work on the pipeline itself might be less complicated in the case of Alberta Clipper than Keystone XL, Monaco doesn’t deny that there will be “some focus” from environmental groups.

Much of the opposition to these projects has been less about the pipe itself than what would flow inside of it. Many environmentalists are opposed to pipelines such as Keystone XL on the grounds that they would enable greater development of Alberta’s oilsands, which they consider a particularly dirty source of crude.

But it was Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline — a contentious proposal to ship oilsands crude to the West Coast for export — that the question-and-answer session at Enbridge’s annual general meeting.

John Ridsdale, hereditary chief with the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, said the project is as good as dead, but it’s important to keep up the pressure on Enbridge.

“If we don’t constantly give them the message, they’ll be out there telling the public and making public perception that it is a done deal, when in fact it is far from being done, far from being approved and far from being a good investment for shareholders,” he said.

During the meeting, Ridsdale asked Monaco whether the company was prepared for years of litigation, should Enbridge move ahead with the project without First Nations’ consent.

Monaco noted that the project is currently going through a regulatory review process, and any discussion about future lawsuits would be premature.

“If there is litigation, we will deal with it at the time. We prefer that not to be the case, frankly,” Monaco told reporters later. “We want to work with people. We want to try and address their concerns.”

It was Monaco’s first time facing Northern Gateway opponents at the company’s annual meeting, following his predecessor, Pat Daniel’s, retirement last fall.

“I think it’s interesting that Al Monaco has said that he’s prepared and recognizes the need to seek social licence,” Karen Tam Wu, with environmental group Forest Ethics, said before the meeting.

“I think what we really need to reiterate to him is that social licence cannot be bought and particularly for this project, social licence will never be earned.”

Monaco said the furor over pipelines over the past few years has changed the way Enbridge handles projects.

“There’s no doubt when the bar gets raised, there’s more resources that are required,” he said. “But we’re not afraid of that. It has to be done and that’s what we’re doing.”

Earlier Wednesday, Enbridge reported higher first-quarter adjusted earnings that beat expectations, but warned it doesn’t expect that pace to last.

The pipeline company posted profits of $488 million, or 62 cents per share — beating the average analyst estimate by 10 cents per share, according to Thomson Reuters.

During the same period a year earlier, Enbridge earned $373 million, or 49 cents per share.

“Although we’re pleased with that result, we don’t expect this pace will be maintained through the year,” Monaco told analysts.

“As a result we’re holding our (earnings per share) guidance range at $1.74 to $1.90 a share and if we’re able to achieve the mid-point of this range it would represent a 12 per cent increase over 2012.”

Enbridge’s net earnings, a measure that includes one-time items such as hedging gains and losses, were $250 million, or 31 cents per share, compared with $261 million, or 34 cents per share a year earlier.

Revenue for the quarter totalled $8.02 billion, up from $6.63 billion in the first quarter of 2012.