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northern gateway

Environment Minister Peter Kent.Chris Wattie/Reuters

A scathing report out of the United States that criticized just about every aspect of Enbridge Inc.'s response to a pipeline spill in Michigan won't change the Canadian government's support for the company's proposed Northern Gateway project, the federal environment minister said.

A report by U.S. investigators released last week concluded Enbridge bungled its response when millions of litres of oil began to pour in and around the Kalamazoo River in July 2010, comparing the company's handling of the spill to the Keystone Kops.

The report has provided fuel for critics of Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway project, which would carry crude oil along 1,170 kilometres of pipeline from Alberta to British Columbia's coast. Even B.C.'s premier has demanded answers.

But the report won't change the opinion of the federal Conservative government, which has hailed the Northern Gateway pipeline as important for the country.

"Pipelines are still, by far, the safest way to transport petrochemicals in any form," said Environment Minister Peter Kent in an interview Wednesday.

Mr. Kent said he had yet to read the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board report.

The board concluded Enbridge did not fix a defect on the pipeline when it was discovered five years earlier and control room staff responded poorly when Line 6B ruptured on July 25, 2010.

The environment minister argued there are important differences between the older pipeline involved in the Michigan spill and the newer technologies available for the Northern Gateway and other future projects.

"It is an older pipeline; it is a different set of geographic and technological realities from some of the new major projects being proposed," he said.

"We've made it clear and (Natural Resources) Minister (Joe) Oliver has made it clear that these spills, large and small, in older pipelines do drive home and make us even more aware of the needs for better practices, better technology, better supervision, better regulation and better inspection than in pipelines in the past."

The Northern Gateway project is currently before the National Energy Board, which has been holding hearings throughout Alberta and British Columbia. The hearings are expected to wrap up early next year.

While the B.C. government has yet to publicly announce whether it supports the pipeline, the Alberta government and Ottawa have been very vocal supporters of the project.

Mr. Kent said the report won't change his government's opinion, but said Ottawa will listen to whatever the National Energy Board concludes.

"The panel hearings will continue and we will hear their recommendations at the end of the day," said Mr. Kent.

"These various recent incidents in Canada and beyond just remind us that we do have to be vigilant in the way that we permit and regulate our pipelines."

The project has been controversial since its inception, garnering fierce opposition from first nations groups and environmentalists. British Columbia's opposition New Democrats have pledged to block the pipeline if they win the next provincial election, currently set for May, 2013.

The B.C. government has continued to resist taking a public stand on the pipeline project, but the report prompted the premier to demand Enbridge clean up its act or forget the Northern Gateway.

Premier Christy Clark said she intends to use the province's status as an intervener at the National Energy Board hearings to force Enbridge to answer questions raised by the report.

Enbridge has promised to apply the lessons from the Michigan spill to its other projects, including the Northern Gateway project.

The company said it has already made numerous changes and welcomes the opportunity to explain those to the B.C. government and the public.

The Michigan spill affected more than 50 kilometres of waterways and wetlands, while about 320 people reported symptoms from crude oil exposure.

Enbridge's cleanup costs have exceeded $800-million.

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