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There was always a strong economic case to be made for the Northern Gateway pipeline. The question facing the National Energy Board panel evaluating its merits was whether those fiscal benefits outweighed the significant environmental risks associated with the project.

In recommending conditional approval for the pipeline, the board's joint review panel this week decided that the societal and fiscal advantages the project represents to B.C. and the country ultimately trump any potential perils. Now it is up to Ottawa to decide if the panel's endorsement is enough to proceed in the face of the aboriginal and environmental backlash the decision has already ignited.

Gateway represents one of the most important decisions the federal government has faced in years. It must determine whether the pipeline is in the national interest and whether those same interests override vehement First Nations objections, not to mention those of a vast swath of the provincial population most affected by the pipeline's construction. Forcing it down the throats of a province would be a dangerous move for any national government, except under the most extraordinary of circumstances.

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At this point, Gateway would seem to represent a war that Stephen Harper's Conservative government can't win.

It will no doubt do its best over the next few months to try to turn aboriginal opposition to the project in its favour. And while Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver might persuade a few of the First Nations holdouts that mitigation efforts being imposed on Enbridge by the joint review panel would minimize risks to a degree deemed acceptable by most fair-minded people, he will not be able to persuade them all. Not even close.

It would seem inevitable that aboriginal groups such as the Coastal First Nations will take this matter to court, where it could be bogged down for months if not years. Would Ottawa dare green-light the project in the meantime? That would seem almost unthinkable given the money that could be spent, and ultimately lost, if the courts ruled in favour of the aboriginal opponents. And the government's recent court record involving disputes with First Nations groups in B.C. is not good.

Beyond that, there is the hostility toward the project by environmental groups, the full wrath of which Ottawa has not yet seen. While the Conservatives have tried to write off members of these organizations as foreign-funded radicals, they nonetheless represent a well-financed and well-organized front that has made Gateway a hill to die on. In many respects, the future viability of the environmental movement itself resides in its ability to ensure that this project never sees the light of day.

And it will use any means – including worldwide protests and the courts – to help claim victory.

Then there is the additional question of whether Mr. Harper has the moral authority to proceed with Gateway given the positions held by his two central political opponents – the federal Liberals and New Democrats. Both parties are steadfastly against Gateway under any terms. Would it be right for Ottawa to green-light a project in, say, late 2014, with a federal election just around the corner? An election that could well result in a change in government, if current polls are to be believed?

Despite the joint panel's thorough and, on many levels, justifiable decision, it is difficult to see how Gateway proceeds. Its only hope, perhaps, is if a plan emerges to refine the crude that would be piped from Alberta to the coast before it is loaded on tankers, thereby drastically reducing the potential environmental damage that would be created by a spill. But that does not seem to be on Enbridge's radar. And even then it's doubtful that would assuage those against oil tankers plying the B.C. North Coast under any circumstances.

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What Gateway may end up being is the decision that allowed the Kinder Morgan pipeline to get approved. It would seem inconceivable that it could get killed as well, given that it does not involve transporting oil down one of the most ecologically sensitive coastlines in the world. At some point, reasonable minds must prevail, just accommodation must be made.

This week, Northern Gateway received conditional approval. But that may be as far as the project ever gets.

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