A joint review panel has recommended the federal government approve Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline project.
The approval hinges on 209 required conditions, including developing a marine mammal protection plan, researching heavy oil cleanup and conducting emergency response exercises.
"After weighing the evidence, we concluded that Canada and Canadians would be better off with the Enbridge Northern Gateway project," said the panel in its roughly 500-page report.
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The recommendation comes after 180 days of hearings in 21 communities in B.C. and Alberta.
The final decision, however, rests with the federal government, which has 180 days to decide. The government can approve or deny the application, but cannot change the conditions put forward by the panel. However, it can request the National Energy Board (NEB) to change the conditions.
Enbridge president and CEO Al Monaco welcomed what he called 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."
Enbridge said that if the project is approved that construction could start in 2014 and be completed by 2018.
'Science-based assessment,' says minister
The $7.9-billion pipeline would take bitumen from Alberta's oilsands to the B.C. coast for tanker export to Asia. But the controversial proposal has pitted Calgary-based Enbridge against environmental groups and several First Nations.
The pipeline has also been a lightning rod in the debate over climate change and has raised concerns about the effects an oil spill would have on environmentally sensitive areas along the B.C. coast.
Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver's office issued a statement after the approval, saying the project would not be approved by the government unless it is safe for Canadians and the environment.
“The panel’s report represents a rigorous, open and comprehensive science-based assessment,” reads the statement.
“Now that we have received the report, we will thoroughly review it ... and then make our decision. We also encourage everyone with an interest to take the time and review the report.”
The three-person panel was established in December 2009 by the NEB and the federal environment minister. Its task was to assess the environmental, social and economic effects from construction and operation of the pipeline.
In the past approval has come directly from the NEB, but controversial Bill C-38 gave that power to cabinet.
B.C. sought 5 conditions
The B.C. government had told the panel it did not support the pipeline as proposed and it had five conditions that needed to be addressed.
B.C.'s 5 conditions
- Environmental review needs to be passed.
- World-leading marine oil spill prevention, response.
- World-leading practices for land oil spill prevention, response.
- First Nations opportunities, treaty rights respected.
- Fair share of the fiscal and economic benefits for B.C.
George Hoberg, a University of British Columbia professor of forestry and ethics, said the panel's decision is positive for the federal government, but it will be interesting to see where the B.C. government offers its support.
While interprovincial pipelines are federal jurisdiction, Hoberg said, B.C. could launch a legal challenge.
He said the Conservatives need B.C. seats to form a government after the 2015 election, so the question is whether there will be political war.
"It could go badly for [Prime Minister Stephen Harper] in the next federal election if they do," he said.
But there is still some support in the province as some British Columbia stakeholders celebrated the long-awaited announcement.
Aboriginal opposition still a factor
More than 130 aboriginal bands have signed a declaration against the project.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has said the vehement opposition from First Nations along the proposed route will eventually kill the project.
"This is not going to be allowed to go through without a peep," Mulcair said Wednesday, faulting the Conservative government for ignoring the rights and concerns of aboriginal communities.
"You can no longer impose these things from the top down. This is another era. You need social adhesion, you need to work with people. You can't just bark at them and say, 'This is going through.'"
The opposition remains despite the fact that Enbridge started consultations with First Nations in 2005, well before it filed an application for the pipeline in May 2010.
The federal government says it will consult with aboriginal groups now that the panel's report has been issued.
Spill risk and wildlife impact
The report issued today said that although impacts of a large oil spill would be huge, the panel believes the conditions put on the project will help implement appropriate and effective spill prevention measures.
Enbridge has been directed to develop liability coverage of $950 million, but it would have to include many components — such as having $100 million ready in cash to address the initial costs of a spill.
The panel's report also highlighted the risks posed to certain woodland caribou and grizzly bear populations.
Enbridge has put forth substantial mitigation plans, but the panel is not certain of the effectiveness of that mitigation.
One of the conditions for approval is a caribou habitat restoration plan.
The panel did not address concerns about the Northern Pacific humpback whale because reports on the matter were not submitted as evidence during its proceedings.
Reaction to the decision has been mixed.
Alberta Premier Alison Redford had said she hoped the panel would endorse the proposed pipeline as her province strives to diversify market access for the oilsands.
The panel also found that "opening Pacific basin markets is important to the Canadian economy and society."
Diana McQueen, Alberta’s energy minister, said the decision is an important step to reaching that goal and that she is confident Enbridge can meet the needs of communities and First Nations in both provinces.
The Wildrose Party, Alberta’s official opposition, said meeting all of the 209 conditions in the report will ensure the province’s resources can be developed safely and protect the environment in B.C. and Alberta.
But the Pembina Institute is calling today's decision disappointing. In a release, the organization said the panel's report is out of step with Canadians' concerns about the oilsands and pipeline development.
It says the review panel excluded the environment impacts of further oilsands development and that the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from filling the pipeline will be the same as adding three million cars a year to Canadian roads.
Both the federal NDP and Liberals have voiced opposition to the project.