Canada will be vulnerable to economic disaster should the Northern Gateway pipeline be rejected, the proponent told a federal review panel Monday as the final phase of public hearings got underway.

Richard Neufeld, the lawyer for Calgary-based Enbridge, said there are billions of dollars at stake in the pipeline that would link the Alberta oil sands with a tanker port on the coast of British Columbia, and the lucrative oil markets of Asia beyond.

"It's going to allow our country to enjoy tremendous economic benefits that would be afforded by this project, while at the same time providing fair and reasonable protections for local and regional interests," he said.

The $6-billion project would allow land-locked Alberta to expand its customer base beyond the United States, where the industry argues it is forced to sell oil for up to $8 less per barrel because it has no competing buyers.

Should the pipeline be rejected, the whole country will face the economic consequences, Neufeld said.

"How about a decision from the U.S. that it will no longer need Canadian oil?" he told the panel. "Canadians would be facing, we suggest, an economic catastrophe of unprecedented proportion."

After more than a year of hearings, dozens of members of the public packed a hotel conference room in Terrace, B.C., to listen to the final arguments under the watchful eyes of private security guards and RCMP.

About 70 protesters gathered outside the hearings in the scenic city 62 kilometres from Kitimat, the home of the proposed Northern Gateway tanker port.

Supporters of the project are hard to find on the streets of Terrace, where last year the city council voted to oppose the pipeline. Nearby Smithers and Prince Rupert have done the same.

The project involves twin 1,200-kilometre pipelines linking the Alberta oil sands to the Kitimat marine terminal.

Government objections

Christopher Jones, the lawyer for the B.C. government, reiterated the province's objections to the project.

"Northern Gateway has made much in these proceedings of putting in place world-class spill response capability," Jones said, adding that the plans so far have not been tested.

"We don't want to be in a situation where Northern Gateway's plans look good on paper but are not effective under real conditions."

Although the panel reiterated Monday that evidence gathering is now closed, B.C. Premier Christy Clark said last week that negotiations continue on the five conditions set out by the province.

Geoff Plant, the former B.C. Liberal cabinet minister heading the provincial team at the hearings, said Northern Gateway could improve its research and documentation in order to meet those conditions.

"What we are saying is that the evidence here doesn't meet the standard, and Northern Gateway is going to have to do something more, something better, somewhere else, to do that," Plant said.

In a process that has been largely dominated by opponents, some supporters are slated to add their voices to the final arguments, including the Alberta government, the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

Oil industry players Nexen, Cenovus Energy, Inpex Canada, Suncor Energy and Total E&P Canada, members of the limited partnership backing the project, are also scheduled to appear this week.

First Nations opposed

And while First Nations in B.C. have overwhelmingly rejected the pipeline, Chief Herb Arcand, of the Alexander First Nation in Alberta, told the panel that his band has signed an equity agreement with Enbridge.

The company told the panel that, if approved, operations would commence in 2018 — two years after the initial estimated start date.

As the clock winds down on the joint federal review process of the National Energy Board and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, John Carruthers, president of Northern Gateway Pipelines, said he believes the project will go ahead.

"Yes, the project should proceed, and that doesn't stop the dialogue," he said outside the hearing room.

"We'll continue to have dialogue with those who support the project, with those who oppose the project. There are still issues people have and we'll still try and address those, but in terms of the big questions, it's urgently needed and it can be built and operated safely."

Art Sterritt, executive director of Coastal First Nations, disagreed. The coalition of aboriginal groups rejoined the review process it left earlier this year in order to appeal to the panel to reject the pipeline.

"As far as we're concerned, the Northern Gateway pipeline is not in the public interest and should be rejected," he told the panel.

"How can it be in the public interest to approve a project that is opposed by all coastal First Nations?"

The panel's report to the federal government is due by the end of the year.