Vanessa Lu, The Star, May 9, 2012
Dozens of police and security guards were out in full force outside the King Edward hotel on Wednesday as protesters were marching toward the venue.
Protesters assemble outside the King Edward Hotel where Enbridge holds its AGM to voice their concern over the Northern Gateway pipeline. A number of environmental groups as well as native communities are opposed to the pipeline. (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star)
Enbridge is holding its annual general meeting here and anger over its proposed Northern Gateway pipeline threatened to get loud.
With drums pounding, protesters chanted “we can’t drink oil,” as they marched down King St. in Toronto’s downtown core.
They held placards saying, “No tankers,” “No pipeline without consent” and “Stop Enbridge.”
Inside, CEO Patrick Daniel, who is retiring later this year, told shareholders that the company has heard the message that some investors, including mutual fund company NIE Investments has sent, and offered to follow up later.
A resolution put forward by NIE Investments seeking more disclosure around the Northern Gateway pipeline project, was defeated at the meeting, though the final vote tally was not immediately available.
As Enbridge officials briefed investors on the company’s performance in the past year, members of First Nations groups sat quietly in the front row. Daniel took Enbridge shareholders through the financials of the 2011, noting it was the best year ever for the company, with a total shareholder return of 40 per cent.
The company is expected to open the floor to questions later in the meeting.
Daniel acknowledged that there has been a lot of attention on the Northern Gateway, he noted the regulatory review is in progress with final decision next year.
“Over the past 10 years we have held over 25 public meetings,” he said, adding open houses have been held. “We have met directly with 17,000 people.”
He added the company believes it has made significant disclosure around its proposed pipeline plans, noting it has signed agreements to date with 22 First Nations groups along the route.
During the question and answer period, one First Nations chief pointed to the need to respect the land and the water.
“I know Canada is run by industries,” he said. “Every one of you has a stake in the future,” warning that they aren’t going to go away.
“How far is the company willing to go to destroy our country?”
Daniel argued that energy is a way to enable “the kind of life we all want.”
“The idea of destruction does not have any place in our discussion,” Daniel said. “The energy that we provide and that we move is so critical to improve lifestyles.”
Chief Jackie Thomas of Saik’uz First Nation noted that groups have repeatedly laid out concerns, and that Enbridge officials have not responded to an invitation to visit their territory.
Daniel assured Thomas that Enbridge would respond.
The controversial $5.5 billion pipeline would stretch 1,172 kilometres from Bruderheim, Alta., to the port of Kitimat, B.C., where crude would be loaded onto tankers to be sold to markets in Asia as well as the U.S. west coast.
But much of the line crosses aboriginal land which has divided First Nations groups. Some vehemently oppose the pipeline, warning it threatens their way of life. Others have signed on, getting an ownership chunk.
First Nations groups are also worried about what a spill could do to the fragile environment, noting the pipeline would carry about 525,000 barrels of oil a day.
To highlight their opposition to the pipeline, 40 representatives of the Yinka Dene Alliance, which is made up of B.C. First Nations groups, left Vancouver last week on the so-called Freedom Train to travel to Toronto for Enbridge’s annual general meeting and to raise awareness across Canada of the controversy.
They have argued that any short-term employment benefits that come with building pipeline do not outweigh the risks.
However, not all First Nations are opposed to Northern Gateway, with Enbridge officials saying that 40 per cent have agreed to the offer of a 10 per cent stake in the pipeline.
Fuelling growing concerns is a recent decision by the federal government to streamline the environmental reviews for major energy infrastructure projects.
Last month, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver warned that regulatory delays threaten $500 billion in investments over the next decade.
The ongoing controversy of the pipeline has NEI Investments, which owns about 150,000 Enbridge shares in its Ethical Balanced Fund, concerned about the long-term implications of the project.
It put forward a resolution asking the board of directors to report to shareholders by May 2013 with details about how the board has assessed the risks associated with the First Nations’ opposition to the pipeline project.
“We are quite alarmed by the level of opposition that seems to be hardening against the pipeline,” said Jamie Bonham, NEI’s manager of extractives research & engagement, in an earlier interview. “The resolution is an action of last resort.”
At the meeting, NIE’s Bonham said the fund is worried about the significant opposition to the pipeline, and that it will be years before litigation is settled.
“Enbridge has spent considerable time building a reputation as progressive company in the energy sector,” he said, adding it fears the controversy around the pipeline could damage Enbridge’s reputation.
Another shareholder urged the board and management there is clear and fulsome disclosure around the proposed pipeline project.
However, the resolution did not pass.
Bonham said his fund is concerned about the long-term risks involved as it looks likely that the project could face legal roadblocks and could ultimately wind up at the Supreme Court.
“How do you physically build a pipeline if people won’t let you?” he asked. Even if the resolution doesn’t gain majority support from shareholders, Bonham said that sometimes a company will take action if a resolution wins significant backing, so he remains hopeful.
In its management circular released prior to the AGM, Enbridge urged shareholders to vote against the resolution, outlining the process it has taken, starting as far back as 2005 and in some cases 2002 with aboriginal groups. It added that a regulatory process is under way and the board cannot prematurely commit to a report by May 2013.
Enbridge reported lower first-quarter net earnings on hedging losses Wednesday. It said net earnings were $264 million, or 35 cents per share, compared with $364 million, or 49 cents, a year earlier.
Revenues increased to $6.6 billion from $6.5 billion. When stripped of hedging impacts, adjusted earnings were $376 million, or 50 cents per share, compared with $330 million, or 44 cents per share for the same period in 2011.