The federal government has set a firm deadline of Dec. 31, 2013, for the review panel deciding the future of the Northern Gateway pipeline, shutting down the possibility of further extensions and putting into place the expedited assessment process pledged in its budget implementation bill.
But the written notice issued by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency Friday comes on the heels of comments from the senior Harper government minister in B.C., James Moore, who told a radio program in Vancouver on Wednesday that doubts about the Northern Gateway project are "widespread, given the behaviour of Enbridge recently."
Moore denied repeatedly that the federal government's goal is to "ram through the pipeline." But he did not reply to interview requests Friday seeking clarification as to whether his comments reflected a possible change in direction or message for federal Conservatives.
In an emailed statement provided to CBC News in response to an interview request seeking clarification of the government's position, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver's office repeated well-used lines about the federal government's "critical strategic objective" of "diversification of our energy markets" in order to "create jobs and economic growth."
"We will continue to work in partnership with the provincial governments to encourage achieving this objective," the statement said. "In particular to the Northern Gateway project, it is currently before the Joint Review Panel who are reviewing all the environmental considerations to make sure it is safe for the environment and Canadians. We look forward to reviewing their report once it is completed."
In an interview Friday on CBC News Network's Power & Politics, Peter Julian, the NDP Natural Resources critic who represents the B.C. riding of Burnaby-New Westminster, said the federal government's doublespeak just isn't going to fly with Canadians.
"The Conservatives are playing this dangerous game where in B.C. they're acknowledging the widespread negative reaction of the Northern Gateway proposal, and at the same time in Ottawa they're trying to impose and move forward on something that British Columbians will simply not accept," Julian told guest host Hannah Thibedeau.
Friday's notice from the federal assessment agency confirmed the changes implemented in the government's budget bill, which came into force on July 6. The changes to the joint review panel's mandate set a maximum time limit for the panel's work, concluding at the end of 2013 without further extensions.
Under the changes, the joint review panel can't reject the pipeline project for only environmental reasons.
Once the review panel submits its report, the federal government will make the final decision on the pipeline within 180 days (approximately six months), before the end of June 2014.
Public opinion against project
Public opinion in British Columbia is against the pipeline, which would travel from Alberta's oilsands, across B.C.'s interior to a new marine terminal at Kitimat. The bitumen could then be shipped to new Asian markets from the west coast port.
Its travel first across First Nations lands and then along sensitive coastal ecosystems has drawn concerns about the level of consultation and environmental risk involved with the project.
At the Council of the Federation premiers meeting last week in Halifax, B.C. Premier Christy Clark rejected a national energy strategy led by Alberta Premier Alison Redford.
Clark issued five conditions she insisted must be met before her government would approve the pipeline, including a desire to see B.C. get its "fair share" of the revenues from the oilsands in return for the environmental risk it would assume.
The B.C. premier bluntly said that if her province's concerns weren't addressed by both the federal and Alberta governments backing the project, there would be "no pipeline."
David McGuinty, the Liberal Natural Resources critic, said on Power & Politics that it's up to the prime minister to sit down with the premiers and work out a national energy strategy or risk seeing "regional factions appear."
"There is no coherent approach to our energy future ... the federal government should be taking some leadership with the provinces to decide as a nation where we are going," McGuinty told Thibedeau.
In his private radio interview on Wednesday, Moore didn't exactly side with Clark, saying "she hasn’t been clear on what actually constitutes a fair share or where the fair share would come from." Moore also said many of the other demands B.C. had put on the table were "well on their way to being addressed" with the government "moving" on the first three concerns about the environmental assessment process.
Moore suggested that the aboriginal consultation part of B.C.'s concerns was something that Enbridge needs to address.
But Harper's senior minister for B.C. appeared to defend what Clark herself said was her main objective last week: representing her province's concerns at the table.
"Christy Clark is very much, I think, in the right in terms of her responsibility to represent British Columbians. To make sure that the rest of the country understands that just because British Columbia is physically the Asia-Pacific gateway, it doesn’t mean that we’re the doormat for companies like Enbridge to think that they can go ahead and do business without having due diligence and taking care of the public’s interest," Moore said.
Enbridge 'puts a real sour taste' in B.C.'s mouth
"Enbridge hasn't, I don't think, adequately explained to the country and to British Columbians, what happened in Kalamazoo and why, what happened in Wisconsin last week and why?" Moore said in the interview, noting that the company had only recently hired someone to work "on the ground" to talk to people in the province that would ultimately host the pipeline.
"It puts a real sour taste in the mouth," the heritage minister said, suggesting the company wasn't "taking seriously their responsibility to gain the confidence of everyday British Columbians for their project."
"This project will not survive public scrutiny unless Enbridge takes far more seriously their obligation to engage the public and to answer those very legitimate questions about the way in which they’ve operated their business in the very recent past," he said.
Moore's comments made him the first minister to come out strongly against Enbridge, in contrast with his cabinet colleagues Jason Kenney and John Baird who both spoke out against Clark's conditions and in defence of the pipeline project last week.
Despite his strong criticism of the company behind this pipeline, Moore did say he supports the government's goal of getting its energy exports to new markets. He did not suggest how that goal could be achieved if the concerns about the Northern Gateway project caused it not to be approved by the review panel or the federal cabinet.
Julian and McGuinty said that Moore was distancing himself from Enbridge due to the growing opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline project, and to protect his own seat in B.C.