Enbridge has told the National Energy Board that the company’s $6-billion plan to build a pipeline from the Alberta oilsands to the B.C. coast is similar to other massive industrial projects in Canada's history.

Speaking at a hearing in Edmonton Tuesday, John Carruthers, president of Enbridge's Northern Gateway Pipelines division, compared the project to the Canadian Pacific Railway and the St. Lawrence Seaway, which he says were controversial but ended up benefiting the country.

"Our project is no different," Carruthers told the three-member panel.

"There is a path forward that will … provide a significant improved quality of life for all Canadians, including Aboriginal Canadians, while protecting the environment."

Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. wants to build the $6-billion pipeline to transport raw bitumen from the oilsands to Kitimat, B.C., where it can then be shipped to Asian markets.

The project has met with widespread opposition in British Columbia, particularly among environmentalists and First Nations people who worry about the potential damage to inland and coastal areas that would be caused by a pipeline leak.

Many opponents have pointed to damage done when a 2010 spill from an Enbridge pipeline damaged waterways and wetlands near Marshall, Mich., and cost $800 million to clean up.

Carruthers directly referenced the Marshall spill in his opening remarks, saying that the company had made improvements to the safety of its pipelines.

"Canadians have asked why, and how that event happened," he said. "Northern Gateway understands the importance of those questions and will answer them as this hearing proceeds."

Labour group questions Enbridge numbers

The Alberta Federation of Labour spent the afternoon questioning Enbridge's experts. The group, which represents organized labour in Alberta, plans to argue that the project is not in the public's interest because it will send refining jobs out of the province.

There is also political opposition to the project. B.C. Premier Christy Clark sparked a battle with her Alberta counterpart, Alison Redford, when she announced that British Columbia would not approve the project unless conditions, including a larger share of royalties, were met.

Two weeks have been set aside for the Edmonton portion of the hearings. The panel will move on to Prince George in October and Prince Rupert in November and December.

Final arguments will be presented to the panel next spring, which must make a recommendation by the end of 2013.

Ottawa is expected to make a decision with six months of the panel's review.