A polarizing debate over the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline heated up Thursday after an independent panel from the National Energy Board recommended the federal government approve the pipeline with conditions.

The report comes after more than a year of hearings in B.C. and Alberta, and hinges on 209 required conditions, including developing a marine mammal protection plan, researching heavy oil cleanup and conducting emergency response exercises. 

'No project will be approved unless it is safe for Canadians and safe for the environment.' —Joe Oliver, minister of natural resources

The controversial $7.9-billion pipeline, which would take bitumen from Alberta's oilsands to the B.C. coast for tanker export to Asia, has pitted Calgary-based Enbridge against environmental groups and several First Nations.

During the review process, the panel heard from over 1,450 participants in 21 different communities, reviewed over 175,000 pages of evidence and received 9,000 letters of comment, according to Joe Oliver, Canada's minister of natural resources.

In a statement, Oliver said the panel's report represents "a rigorous, open and comprehensive science-based assessment."

"Now that we have received the report, we will thoroughly review it, consult with affected aboriginal groups and then make our decision. We also encourage everyone with an interest to take the time and review the report," he said.

"Our government will continue to improve the safe transportation of energy products across Canada. No project will be approved unless it is safe for Canadians and safe for the environment."

Speaking with media on Thursday, Enbridge president and CEO Al Monaco welcomed what he calls a tough review.

"Based on our preliminary look at the conditions of the recommendation, they're tough," he said. "But they should be, given everybody's goal to make sure we deliver a safe project and we protect the environment."

B.C. First Nations defiant

On Thursday, First Nations groups in British Columbia expressed both disappointment and defiance.

 Coastal First Nations executive director Art Sterritt

'One spill in the Great Bear Rainforest wipes out our food supply, our economy, our culture and everything that we stand for,' said Coastal First Nations executive director Art Sterritt. (CBC)

"One spill in the Great Bear Rainforest wipes out our food supply, our economy, our culture and everything that we stand for," said Coastal First Nations executive director Art Sterritt.

"And we will never allow that [to] happen, nor would the Constitution of Canada."

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, said the fight was not over.

"This is about the environmental integrity of the watersheds we all share and we are willing to go to any lengths to defend our watersheds," he said.

'We are prepared to go to the wall against this project. We have no choice.' — Grand Chief Stewart Phillip

"We are prepared to go to the wall against this project. We have no choice."

In the lead-up to the panel's decision, more than 130 aboriginal bands signed a declaration against the project.

Conservation groups called the pipeline a major setback for science and democracy in Canada.

"We submitted hundreds of pages of scientific evidence on behalf of our clients that lead to one emphatic conclusion: The Northern Gateway pipeline is an unsafe, unsustainable and unnecessary project, and it does not serve the national interest of this country,” said Ecojustice staff lawyer Barry Robinson.

"While we are deeply disappointed with the JRP’s recommendation, this does not mean the pipeline is approved or will even be built."

Gwen Barlee, of the Wilderness Committee, said the panel's decision puts the environment at great risk.

"We have a federal government that has for the past two years … gutted environmental legislation," he told CBC News.

"This is a thoughtless decision, this is a foolish decision … and it's a very, very disappointing recommendation."

B.C. 'open for businesses'

But some stakeholders in B.C. had a different reaction Thursday, celebrating the long-awaited announcement.

In a statement, the B.C. Chamber of Commerce said the project's approval was an indicator that "while our standards are rigorous, B.C. is open for business."

"This is great news for B.C.," said John Winter, president and CEO of the B.C. Chamber of Commerce.

"With this decision, British Columbians can confidently back this project, knowing that it meets our top-tier environmental and community standards."

John Gamble, president of the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies, agreed.

“Oil and gas will continue to be part of the Canadian economy for some time and we need to get our oil and gas resources to market,” Gamble said in a statement.

“We need to diversify energy exports away from the United States and towards more rapidly growing economies."

B.C. sticks to five conditions

During the review process, the B.C. government told the panel it did not support the pipeline as proposed, and on Thursday, B.C.'s Minister of Environment Mary Polak said she could not see the project succeed unless the five requirements previously laid out by the province were met.

"I wouldn't say we're happy with the panel report. I would say we're encouraged that the panel now joins Alberta and joins the federal government and Enbridge in recognizing that the environmental debate around the pipeline is the debate that needs to be resolved," she told CBC News.

"The five conditions have set the bar ... I think we've established the position that that's the minimum and if you don't get there, the project is not going to be successful.

In Alberta, Minister of Energy Diana McQueen said she was confident conditions in both provinces will be met.

“We’re very happy about this announcement today and look forward to this project proceeding," she said.

“While today’s decision is an important step towards achieving that goal, there is still much work ahead for Enbridge to satisfy the many conditions set out by the joint review panel, as well as meeting B.C.’s five conditions.”

McQueen also said the project was important for B.C., Alberta and Canadians alike.

"It is a real economic benefit for Albertans, certainly, but it is for B.C. and Canadians as a whole. I think we all know the value this brings to all of us, collectively and individually."

B.C. NDP leader Adrian Dix said he is calling on Premier Christy Clark to lead the province by opposing the project.

"Fight for our interests and say clearly that this project does not have the support of the province of B.C.," he said.

The final decision still rests with the federal government, which has 180 days to respond to the panel's report.

Kitimat mayor's non-response

The mayor of Kitimat, B.C. — the endpoint for the pipeline — said her council is not taking a stand on the announcement one way or another. Mayor Joanne Monaghan had previously spoken in favour of the project, but took a neutral stance Thursday.

She said the city's next step will be public consultation, but not until the new year.

"Our next meeting will be on Jan. 6 and we will certainly be talking about it then," she said.