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A grizzly bear is photographed in B.C.'s Khutzeymateen Inlet. An LNG pipeline that is slated to pass through a Khutzeymateen grizzly bear sanctuary is set to face opposition.Wayne McCrory

A $5-billion pipeline key to Premier Christy Clark's plan to revitalize British Columbia's economy through LNG development is facing a tough environmental battle on the north coast.

"They can't be allowed to follow that route," grizzly bear biologist Wayne McCrory said Thursday of the pipeline corridor proposed for the Prince Rupert Gas Transmission Project. Mr. McCrory said the pipeline poses a clear threat to bears because it would cut through the Khutzeymateen grizzly bear sanctuary, which became the first protected area of its kind in Canada when it was set aside 19 years ago. It is officially known as Khutzeymateen Provincial Park.

The 750-kilometre line – one of about 10 new liquefied natural gas developments proposed in B.C. – is planned to link gas fields near Hudson's Hope to two LNG plants that would be built on Lelu Island, close to Prince Rupert. The total value of the project proposed by Malaysian national oil company Petronas is $16-billion.

TransCanada Corp., the company that will build the pipeline, says it is not yet doing any substantial work in the Khutzeymateen area and it is "far too early in the process" to assess environmental impacts.

But in a statement released by the Valhalla Wilderness Society, Mr. McCrory said the proposed pipeline corridor "will shatter the ecological integrity of the whole area, and is a threat to every grizzly bear for miles around."

In an interview, he said an estimated 50 grizzly bears use Khutzeymateen Inlet, which is one of the premier bear-viewing sites on the West Coast. Measures to protect bears in the area are so strict that tourists aren't allowed to go ashore and boaters are advised to stay in the middle of the inlet.

Mr. McCrory said he was shocked when helicopters began flying TransCanada crews into the area this summer.

"Helicopters aren't supposed to land in there," he said. "But the biggest impact will be if they put a major industrial road into this area. You'd have to have a road to service the pipeline right-of-way … you open it up like that and for sure you will have poaching and all kinds of mortality associated with increased access."

But Trevor Halford, TransCanada's senior adviser for corporate affairs in B.C., said only preliminary work is being done at this stage.

"It is far too early in the process for us to make any conclusions about potential impacts – on wildlife or environmental resources along a potential route," he said in an e-mail.

"While we have recently conducted some visual inspections by helicopter, we have not conducted any ground studies," he said.

Mr. Halford said the company has applied for permits, which would allow biophysical assessments and geotechnical studies in Khutzeymateen Provincial Park, and no work could be done until those permits are obtained.

He said the project has to go through a B.C. environmental assessment process and get approvals from the BC Oil and Gas Commission before any construction work can take place.

"We are early in the process, and no approvals have been given," he stated.

A Ministry of Environment spokesman was not immediately available for comment.

The Prince Rupert Gas Transmission Project was announced in January, a few months before the provincial election. A key part of Ms. Clark's winning platform was a promise to boost the economy and create jobs.

LNG has been a top item on the government's agenda and Rich Coleman, the Minister of Natural Gas Development was in northwest B.C. this week promoting such developments.

"Seeing first-hand some of the proposed LNG sites … reinforces my confidence that building LNG is the best thing we can do for B.C.," he said.