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First Nations chiefs and leaders listen during a news conference about the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline in Vancouver on Oct. 1.

DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Canadian government is asking the Federal Court of Appeal to uphold its controversial decision to approve the controversial $7-billion Northern Gateway pipeline project.

First Nations, environmental groups and a union are asking the court to quash the decision because of an alleged failure to consider environmental threats or consult with aboriginal bands.

But government lawyer Jan Brongers argued Tuesday that the federal review was extensive, and there must be a high bar for a court to overturn a democratically elected cabinet's decision.

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"It is our firm position that the order-in-council, which is the culmination of a lengthy, thorough and fair environmental assessment process, which included honourable consultation with the impacted First Nations, strongly deserves to be left in place."

The government approved the proposal from Calgary-based Enbridge (TSX:ENB) in June 2014 with 209 conditions, including the creation of plans to protect caribou habitats and marine mammals.

The 1,177-kilometre twin pipeline would ship 525,000 barrels of diluted bitumen a day from Alberta's oilsands to a terminal on British Columbia's north coast for overseas shipping.

Brongers said the federal review panel concluded the 209 conditions would mitigate nearly all the ecological risks, apart from threats to certain woodland populations of grizzly bears and caribou, which were found to be "justified" given the economic benefits.

The government has said Northern Gateway would diversify Canada's energy export markets and contribute to long-term economic security. The project has been estimated to be worth $300 billion in gross domestic product over 30 years.

Eight First Nations argued last week that Canada violated its constitutional duty to consult with them before it approved the project. Brongers responded that the panel heard both oral and written evidence from indigenous groups and determined the pipeline would not have significant adverse effects on traditional use of their lands.

The lawyer urged the three judges presiding over the case to consider previous rulings that have set a high standard for a court to toss a government decision on a resource project. There were only a handful of scenarios in which they could quash the project approval, he said, including if a decision broke the law or if it had no reasonable basis in fact.

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"In other words, applicants who disagree with a (government) decision on whether or not to conditionally approve a resource transportation project will have a tough hill to climb if they choose to challenge it in a judicial forum rather than in the political arena," he said.

The B.C. government and Northern Gateway are set to state their cases later this week, before the hearing is expected to wrap Thursday.

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