The stakes are huge as Canada considers whether to chase a pot of black gold by approving the Northern Gateway pipeline through an area of pristine wilderness in northern B.C.

The Great Bear Rainforest is home to a rich and diverse ecosystem, and is the only place on earth to find the spirit bear.

But the untouched wilderness could be under threat with a proposed $5.5-billion oil pipeline to be built by the oil giant Enbridge.

It would link the Alberta oil sands with the coastal B.C. community of Kitimat. From there, the oil would be shipped by super-tanker to China.

"People on this coast, particularly First Nations people, are living in absolute fear of this project," photographer Ian McAllister told CTV News.

The project's president, John Carruthers, says the pipeline would bring jobs, tax revenue and economic riches.

"It's an expensive proposal but it has huge benefits and those benefits go across Canada," he said.

The Gitga'at people of Hartley Bay have heard similar promises before. They're still coping with oil and gas that bubble up from the wreckage of the Queen of the North ferry, which sank nearby four years ago.

"We didn't dig our clams out here for three years because the Queen is still burping out here -- there's still sheen on the water," Gitga'at elder Helen Clifton said.

The recent oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and an Enbridge pipe break in Michigan are fuelling more concerns about building a pipeline in B.C. People like Clifton are vowing to fight Enbridge with every last breath.

"It is a battle that we're not going to give up, because if we give up, we die as a people. We cannot have tankers going by here for 50 years," she said.

It's estimated the proposed pipeline will travel over the traditional territories of about 50 First Nations, and many of them have already stated that they're set against it.

Wally Bolton feeds his family with the fish he pulls from the water near Kitimat, and he fears for the future.

"This is my bread and butter," he said, adding a message for Enbridge: "Stop. Please, please, stop."

Enbridge is trying to calm fears, and Carruthers says that the possibility of a spill is remote.

"We'll also put in very thorough plans as to what we would do in the event of a spill. The public needs to understand those and be confident that we can respond effectively if there is an incident," he said.

The operators of the nearby King Pacific Lodge say they understand the economic benefits, but fear the risks are too great, especially in an area with a big potential for eco-tourism.

"The possibility of larger vessels going through the waters, down Whale Channel and through these pristine areas, could be a disaster waiting to happen," manager Robert Penman said.

The project could result in as many as 300 super-tanks navigating the waters every year. Researchers say that could endanger the vibrant local whale population, and an oil spill is just one of their worries.

"They are going to get hit. There will be whales that will be hit," researcher Janie Wray said. "I don't even like to say it, but I think we'd end up seeing a lot of dead humpback and fin whales in this area without a doubt."

With a report from CTV British Columbia's Jim Beatty. Watch CTV News at Six on Wednesday for part two of Pipe Dreams:  Saving the world with photos.