SAINT JOHN, N.B. -- TransCanada Corp. stressed its commitment to the safety of oil shipments as three days of hearings into the proposed $15.7 billion Energy East pipeline project opened in New Brunswick on Monday.

"We are committed to delivering this oil safely, responsibly, and reliably, and our goal is to have zero incidents," said John Van der Put, vice president of eastern oil pipeline projects for TransCanada Corp. (TSX:TRP).

He told a three-member National Energy Board panel convening in Saint John that the project is "the safest and most environmentally responsible way" to transport crude oil from Western to Eastern Canada.

He said more than 700 pipeline route changes have already been made as a result of a public consultation process with communities in the three years since the project was announced.

"We submit that moving forward with the Energy East project is in the best interests of the country, of the province of New Brunswick, and the City of Saint John," said Van der Put.

A spokesman for manufacturers in the province emphasized the province is badly in need of jobs the project would bring, citing unemployment rates of up to 20 per cent in some counties.

Joel Richardson of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters said as unemployed New Brunswickers return home from the West due to the downturn in the oil industry, there are growing numbers of skilled tradespeople in dire need of work.

"We believe the approval of Energy East will help create new direct and indirect jobs for thousands of unemployed people in New Brunswick ... and will generate tax revenue to help us cover health care, education and social services in New Brunswick," he told the panel.

However, groups including Nature Canada and the Sierra Club voiced their concerns about the potential environmental impact of the project.

Emma Hebb, of the Sierra Club Foundation of Canada, said the project is simply the wrong one given the environmental challenges posed by global warming.

"We do not believe that this is the best thing for the public interest because it entails an investment in fossil fuel infrastructure at a time when all good science tells us that we need to be switching away from these fossil fuel resources as soon as possible," said Hebb.

Both Hebb and representatives from Nature Canada quizzed the company on its plans in the event of an oil spill along the proposed 4,500 kilometre route.

Van der Put said the key is to put in place a rapid response to any emergency anywhere along the pipeline.

He said the company would be able to have field personnel on site within three hours of a spill and equipment on site within six hours.

He also said TransCanada does site-specific planning to ensure those response targets are met.

As part of the development, crude oil from Alberta would be shipped through the pipeline to Saint John, where it would be refined.

Garry Prosser, whose Anthony's Cove home is across from the proposed tank farm for the marine terminal where the oil will be stored, expressed frustration with a lack of answers from TransCanada about the effects on homeowners in the vicinity.

Prosser said he hasn't received answers to his concerns.

"What price do I have to pay?" said Prosser. "My quality of life, enjoyment of property, health and safety, property values and sense of community will be dramatically affected by this project."

The executive director of the conservation group Nature NB testified that over 200 species and millions of individual birds migrate in the area where the pipeline is planned and over the waters where supertankers will steam with huge cargos of oil.

Vanessa Roy-McDougall noted that species such as the eider ducks, Wilson's storm petrels, Atlantic puffins, razorbills and terns have nesting grounds in the Bay of Fundy.

Nearly 30 species of shorebirds migrate through the bay in late summer and early fall, and between 1.1 and 2.1 million semipalmated sandpipers -- the bulk of the world's population of the species -- migrate along the coast each year, she testified.

"Given the number of birds and species at risk, such as the northern right whale, that frequent the area, Nature NB is concerned about how the increased tanker traffic and the large amount of oil in storage will lead to an increased risk of oil spills in the area," said Roy-McDougall.

She said such a spill would be devastating to birds and marine species, "and in some cases devastating to a large percentage of the global population of the species."

Van der Put said there is a very low probability of such a spill.

In all 337 interveners are scheduled to testify about the pipeline during hearings in cities across Canada.

The hearings are scheduled to conclude in Kingston, Ont., in December and the energy board must make a recommendation to the federal government by March, 16, 2018.