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A female grizzly bear retrieves a dead pink salmon from Glendale river for her spring cub in Knights Inlet, B.C. September 18, 2013.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

When Shell Canada pulled out of the Sacred Headwaters in northern British Columbia last year it did so because it didn't have the approval of stakeholders – or what is known as social licence.

Now the need for that nebulous permit – which every resource company wants but few know how to get – has moved a $5-billion pipeline. The Prince Rupert Gas Transmission Project, which TransCanada Corp. is proposing to build from near Hudson's Hope to Prince Rupert, has been rerouted around two grizzly-bear sanctuaries.

"This is a very important move by the pipeline company," grizzly-bear biologist Wayne McCrory said after learning the pipeline will detour around the sanctuaries near Khutzeymateen Provincial Park, south of Prince Rupert.

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"We don't know any of the particulars," he said. "But I would assume they realize the Khutzeymateen is a high-profile, world-class, protected grizzly sanctuary – and you don't put pipelines through our parks and protected areas."

Well, not if you are TransCanada subsidiary Prince Rupert Gas Transmission Ltd. you don't. Other companies (10 are currently pursuing LNG pipeline proposals in B.C.) may be less flexible. But TransCanada has made it clear it wants social licence for the pipeline project, and if that means rerouting, they will move the pipeline.

Concerns were raised last September when crews for the project were seen in the rugged valley where the rich salmon run of the Khutzeymateen River attracts up to 50 grizzly bears each fall.

Mr. McCrory, who spent decades working to have the area preserved as a grizzly sanctuary, was quick to sound the alarm.

TransCanada, to its credit, listened.

"It is a very sensitive area, a very special area. I have visited the area myself and so we assessed very carefully the environmental issues as well as the constructability issues," John Dunn, vice-president for TransCanada subsidiary Prince Rupert Gas Transmission, said in an interview at the weekend. "So we have made the decision to withdraw that as a possible alternative for the Prince Rupert Gas Transmission Project and we are now focused on marine options."

It should be understood that the most direct and therefore the cheapest route for the pipeline goes right through the Khutzeymateen sanctuary. The only alternative is off shore. So how much more will that move cost TransCanada?

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"Well, clearly there are differences in terms of the engineering, for a marine option versus an onshore option, but I would say that economics per se are not the driver here," said Mr. Dunn. "We are focused on getting social licence for this project. And that's a fundamental part of our evaluation. And so yes absolutely there are cost differences, not just for marine versus onshore, but also for the other routing changes that we've already embraced."

Mr. Dunn said his company has been meeting with First Nations and other stakeholders along the route, and is listening to what people are worried about.

"We've taken that feedback … and we have very substantially changed our route," he said. "We have added, since the process began, in January of this year, over 100 kilometres of pipe to this proposed pipeline route as a direct response to that stakeholder engagement process."

Premier Christy Clark recently declared that when her five conditions for Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway pipeline are met, that controversial project will have acquired social licence. But that's not a permit she or any other government official can issue. Social licence by definition is something that can only be granted by the public. It is too soon to say if TransCanada has the support it needs, but the corporation is taking a big step by opting to detour around the Khutzeymateen grizzlies.

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