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Opponents to the Enbridge pipeline hold signs in downtown Kitimat, B.C. on June, 17.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

One way British Columbia could stop the Northern Gateway pipeline is to withhold construction permits that must come from several ministries, but civil servants operating at arm's length from politicians make those calls.

The litmus test for approving or denying permits at such ministries as environment, forests, lands and natural resources and transportation is whether granting them would lead to environmental harm.

In light of the federal cabinet's conditional approval of Enbridge Inc.'s controversial $7.9-billion pipeline, questions have been raised about whether the B.C. government would express its opposition by withholding permits for the project, which would bring 525,000 barrels of bitumen a day from the Alberta oil sands to the B.C. coast for shipment to Asia.

"I think we've got to do whatever we can to stop [the pipeline]," Spencer Chandra Herbert, the B.C. NDP opposition environment critic, said in an interview on Wednesday. "If that comes down to permits, I guess that's the last-ditch effort to stop it."

Mr. Chandra Herbert said relying on permits would not be ideal. For one thing, he said, it would not send a good signal to investors about B.C. "But if it's all we've got, we've got to use it," he said.

In a statement on Wednesday, the B.C. environment ministry said construction would require at least 60 permits, but rejected the idea of using them as a tactic to block the pipeline, of which the Liberals are wary.

"Those permits are adjudicated by government experts and would not be issued unless environmental risks can be mitigated," the statement said. "There are no 'tactics.' The proposed [Northern Gateway pipeline] would be processed no differently than any other project. We have a legal obligation to fairly adjudicate applications that come forward."

Environment Minister Mary Polak was unavailable for comment on Wednesday, but has said permits would not be granted that would lead to adverse environmental effects.

"We won't be doing this in any kind of an artificial way," she told reporters on Tuesday.

Ms. Polak said Enbridge has received investigative-use permits. "This goes back to the fact that we have legal obligations to fairly adjudicate permits."

In an April debate over budget estimates, Ms. Polak told Mr. Chandra Herbert that the experts who evaluate applications for permits must decide based on environmental impact.

"They do not have the capacity to arbitrarily withhold the granting of a permit. They do have the authority, though, to adjudicate it based on whether or not, in their expert opinion, there is going to be an adverse impact on the environment," Ms. Polak said, according to a Hansard transcript of the exchange.

The B.C. government has withheld its support for the overall Gateway project, saying it has met only one of five conditions the province set for supporting such oil projects, the successful completion of a federal environmental review.

The other conditions are world-leading response plans for both marine and land oil-spills, addressing First Nations treaty rights and providing opportunities from the projects. The last condition is a "fair share" for B.C. of fiscal and economic benefits.

Political scientist Kathryn Harrison of the University of British Columbia said the issue of permits would set up a conflict between Victoria and Ottawa. "Provincial governments do have strong environmental authority," she said. "It seems to me there's a lot of plausible provincial authority here. There are questions about whether federal and provincial authority can co-exist."

A spokesperson for the Gateway project said Enbridge is intent on working within the permit rules for both British Columbia and Alberta.

However, Todd Nogier said a lot of work is needed in assessing 100 conditions that have to be met before construction could begin.

"We will also be focused on continuing our dialogue with First Nations and we look forward to working with the B.C. government on its five conditions for support of oil pipelines in the province. Construction of Northern Gateway will not begin for some time."

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter.

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