By Julie Gordon
KITIMAT, British Columbia (Reuters) - Residents of the British Columbia town of Kitimat voted against the Northern Gateway pipeline project in a blow to Enbridge Inc's efforts to expedite the flow of crude from Canada's landlocked oil sands to high-paying markets in Asia.
The final tally, which came after a month of election-style campaigning in the small town where the pipeline terminal would be built, was more decisive than expected, with 58.4 percent of residents voting "no" and 41.6 percent "yes".
While non-binding, Saturday's vote is likely to carry some weight with Canada's Conservative government, which is expected to decide in mid-June on the C$7.9 billion ($7.21 billion) project, the first major conduit for oil sands crude to Asia.
"My view is this sends a huge message. We who stand to benefit the very most from this project are saying 'no,'" said Patricia Lange, a member of Douglas Channel Watch, a grassroots environmental group that opposed the pipeline.
"It's a scar in the neck of the dragon. We might not have sent the dragon to death, but we are going to continue to battle."
If built, the Northern Gateway pipeline would carry some 525,000 barrels-per-day of crude from Alberta's oil sands across northern British Columbia to the Kitimat port, where it would be loaded onto supertankers and shipped to energy-hungry Asia.
That would allow oil producers to sidestep the over-supplied U.S. Midwest, where Canadian crudes sell at a steep discount to benchmark prices, and tap directly into foreign markets.
But the proposed project has become a divisive issue in Kitimat and across Canada's westernmost province of British Columbia. Supporters say it will bring jobs and prosperity to the region; opponents say the benefits are not worth the risk of an oil spill along British Columbia's pristine northern coast.
As with TransCanada Corp's proposed Keystone XL pipeline to the United States, environmentalists also fear that Northern Gateway will hasten the development of Canada's oil sands and exacerbate climate change.
The plebiscite was meant to gauge support for the project on the local level in Kitimat, an industrial town of about 10,000 people built on resource projects like Rio Tinto Alcan's aluminum refinery and the now-defunct Eurocan paper mill.
"The outcome, of course, was disappointing," said Donny van Dyk, manager of coastal aboriginal and community relations at Enbridge. "What we're going to be doing now is continuing our engagement activities - talking with residents about the project and the opportunities."
The 1,177-kilometer (731-mile) pipeline would, Enbridge says, create about 180 direct, long-term jobs in the town and foster spin off-work for contractors and suppliers.
Van Dyk also said the company is working to address the 209 technical, environmental and socioeconomic conditions set out by regulators in December, as part of their recommendation that the federal government approve the project.
Canada's right-leaning government has long supported Northern Gateway, citing its potential benefits for the broader economy, though it has said it will not approve any pipeline project unless it safe for Canadians and the environment.
As voting wrapped up in Kitimat late on Saturday, residents of the nearby Haisla Nation, an aboriginal community that has lived in the Kitimat regions for thousands of years, gathered in a park near the town's center to await the results.
When the final numbers came out, filtering through the large crowd in excited murmurs, a loud cheer erupted and the traditional drummers pounded on their instruments.
Terri Nyce, a member of the Haisla Nation, compared the aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities working together to try to stop the pipeline as strands of hair in a braid.
"Each strand alone can be weak, but when you put them together and you intertwine them - like mind, body and soul - they will never be broken," she said. "Just like Haisla, just like Kitimat: we're never going to be broken, we're never going to back down from a big corporation like Enbridge." ($1 = 1.0954 Canadian Dollars)
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)