Northern Gateway oil sands pipeline gets conditional federal review panel approval

(CP Photo)A federal panel reviewing the controversial proposed Northern Gateway oil sands pipeline has given conditional approval to Enbridge Inc.'s massive project, but have also attached more than 200 conditions before it can go ahead.

The decision opens the door for the Conservative government to give the project final approval, with the attendant likelihood of renewed protests and legal action from environmentalists and First Nations whose traditional lands are along the proposed route.

The federal cabinet now has 180 days to give Northern Gateway the green light. The Conservative government has made no secret it sees the project as an important element of its resource-based economic strategy.

CBC News noted the government can approve or deny the project application but it can't amend the conditions for approval that the review panel imposed.

"After weighing the evidence, we concluded that Canada and Canadians would be better off with the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project than without it," the panel concluded in the the main volume of its massive report.

"We have concluded that the project would be in the public interest. We find that the project's potential benefits for Canada and Canadians outweigh the potential burdens and risks."

A second volume outlines the panel's 209 recommendations.

The panel said it took a careful, precautionary approach to assessing the project but decided "the environmental burdens associated with project construction and routine operation can generally be effectively mitigated.

"Some environmental burdens may not be fully mitigated in spite of reasonable best efforts and techniques. Continued monitoring, research, and adaptive management of these issues may lead to improved mitigation and further reduction of adverse effects."

The panel warned that the "environmental, societal, and economic burdens of a large oil spill, while unlikely and not permanent, would be significant.

"Through our conditions we require Northern Gateway to implement appropriate and effective spill prevention measures and spill response capabilities, so that the likelihood and consequences of a large spill would be minimized."

In the end, though, the panel concluded the chances of long-term environmental damage from a spill would be very low.

[ Related: Yea or nay for Northern Gateway? Federal review panel report coming ]

Northern Gateway is one of the most contentious mega projects in modern Canadian history.

The project, whose latest cost estimate is almost $8 billion, aims to transport bitumen crude more than 1,100 miles from Bruderheim, Alta., to a new export terminal at Kitimat, on the northern B.C. coast, from where supertankers will take the oil to Asian markets.

In actuality, two lines would be needed: One to carry 525,000 barrels a day of oil to Kitimat, and another line to Bruderheim to carry 193,000 barrels of condensate used to dilute it before it heads west.

A three-member joint review panel mandated by the Environment Assessment Agency and the National Energy Board began hearing evidence last year in Alberta and B.C. about the project's benefits and potential environmental impact.

Public hearings in northern B.C. communities, as well as some in Vancouver and Victoria, were mobbed by environmental and First Nations protesters, forcing officials to bar the public from the hearing room.

Opponents are concerned the line's route across some of British Columbia's most rugged terrain renders it vulnerable to ruptures and also that the mix of heavy crude oil and toxic diluting chemicals will be harder to clean up.

They also worry about the risk of a massive oil spill if one of the supertankers that will have to thread its way up the inlet to the Kitimat loading terminal should run aground.

The B.C. Liberal government also has imposed the fulfillment of five conditions as a pre-requisite to supporting Northern Gateway. Their importance was reiterated Thursday in a tweet by B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak.

[ Related: Northern Gateway pipeline project: 6 things to know ]

The decision sets the stage for a new phase of opposition to the project.

"We are disappointed with the NEB's decision, but this is far from the end of the story – really what happened today was more like throwing fuel on a fire," Ben West, tar sands campaign director for ForestEthics Advocacy, said in a news release.

"Opposition to this project is widespread and passionate. This NEB decision will only anger British Columbians and inspire more people to get involved, to make sure this project isn't built."

BC Green Party MLA Gordon Weaver called the decision "deeply concerning" considering opposition from the B.C. government (which was conditional), First Nations, environmental groups and "the majority of the people of the province."

"However, it is the 209 conditions that apply for the project to proceed which require emphasis," Weaver said in a statement.

"The federal cabinet must ensure that these conditions will be fully met before approving the project. It is unclear how the marine spill response conditions can be fully met, given the lack of scientific research and understanding of how diluted bitumen behaves in a marine environment."

Enbridge says the project will create more than 3,000 construction jobs and 560 long-term jobs in British Columbia.

The project is an important element of the federal Conservative government's resource-based economic strategy.

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver has said Northern Gateway is in the national interest and in 2010 complained "radical" groups were trying to hijack the review process, that he has denied being biased, the Prince George Citizen reported in October.

"I'm not here to promote an individual project and in fact I've never promoted that specific project because it hasn't had its regulatory review completed," he told reporters, according to the Citizen.

Following Thursday's announcement, Oliver promised "no project will be approved unless it is safe for Canadians and safe for the environment," the Globe and Mail reported.