The federal government will deliver a final decision on the fate of the Trans Mountain pipeline by June 18, well beyond the 90-day deadline set by the National Energy Board.
Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi, in Vancouver Thursday afternoon for a "clean energy" infrastructure announcement, said the federal government needs more time to satisfy its legal duty to consult with First Nation and Métis communities about the project.
Sohi said he has spoken personally with 50 affected communities and his consultation teams have met over 100 communities along the pipeline route.
"Our obligation is to ensure that we are engaging in a meaningful two-way dialogue," Sohi told reporters. "That we are listening to concerns, that we are offering accommodations."
Sohi acknowledges the government might not be able to resolve every concern Indigenous communities have.
"Where accommodations are not possible, we are being very transparent about why accommodation can't be offered," Sohi said. "Our obligation is to ensure that we have adequately fulfilled our duty to consult. And that's the test that we will apply to conclude these consultations. "
After a period of uncertainty last summer, the National Energy Board (NEB) endorsed the project on Feb. 22, giving Ottawa a 90-day period to make a final call.
That set up May 22 as the original deadline to either approve the taxpayer-owned project or kill it outright.
"Indigenous groups have told us that more time is needed," Sohi said.
"The government of Canada remains steadfast in its commitment to do things differently on [the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion], moving the process forward in the right way and following the guidance of the Federal Court of Appeal. This means ensuring that consultations are not only meaningful but also open and transparent."
The Liberal government, which purchased the project for $4.5 billion, hit a roadblock last summer when the Federal Court quashed its initial cabinet approval of the expanded pipeline. It forced Ottawa to start over on Indigenous consultation and marine-related environmental assessment, two key issues.
The NEB was ordered to reassess the pipeline expansion, including the impact of increased oil tanker traffic.
In its February endorsement, the NEB made 16 new recommendations designed to better protect marine life on the B.C. coast, where the line ends.
The government has also launched renewed consultations with Indigenous groups.
In March, Sohi said said the Crown consultation teams — the people carrying out the government's constitutional obligation to meet with Indigenous groups — were in a "strong position" to finish their work after months of meetings with First Nations and Métis groups in Alberta and B.C.
The 1,150-kilometre Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project between Alberta's oilpatch and coastal B.C. would nearly triple the existing pipeline's capacity to 890,000 barrels a day. Tanker traffic from the Westridge Marine Terminal would increase from about five vessels a month to one a day.
Alberta's new premier is okay about the delay
Today, Alberta's incoming premier, Jason Kenney, said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed for him during a 15-minute phone call Wednesday morning that the federal government would delay the approval of the Trans Mountain Pipeline.
Kenney said the federal government needed additional weeks to ensure "proper completion of Aboriginal consultation," and he agreed with postponing the decision.
"We certainly don't need them going back to the drawing board a third time on this," Kenney told reporters after meeting with outgoing premier Rachel Notley.
During the Alberta provincial election, Kenney campaigned on standing up to Ottawa to ensure new pipelines are built.
After Kenney spoke Wednesday, Notley said she's disappointed the government has delayed its decision and said it shows how the task of getting Alberta's oil to foreign markets is often out of the hands of Albertans.
"We know, as I have said all along, that they need to do their homework on the consultation and the accommodation," said Notley, soon to become Alberta's opposition leader. "It has been 36 hours since Mr. Kenney was elected.
"It's not as simple has having press conferences and expressing people's outrage over and over."
The federal Conservatives also criticized the delay, with federal energy critic and Lakeland MP Shannon Stubbs questioning the timing.
"Today's announcement, two days after the Alberta election and the day before the Easter long weekend, confirms that the Liberals have no plan to get the Trans Mountain expansion built," Stubbs said in a news release. "The Liberals never had a plan to meet the 90-day deadline to make a decision."