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A fisherman paddles the waters of the Kitimat Arm of the Douglas Channel recently in northern British Columbia near to where Enbridge Inc. plans to build its Northern Gateway pipeline terminal facility.STAFF/Reuters

A group of premiers, former federal cabinet ministers and business leaders is calling on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to approve the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, calling it "a project that's right for our time."

The open letter, which was due to run in four Canadian newspapers on Thursday, comes days before the June 17 deadline for Mr. Harper's cabinet to make a decision on the pipeline, one that would carry oil sands bitumen from landlocked Alberta to B.C.'s coast, where it could then be shipped internationally.

Environmental groups, First Nations leaders and opposition parties in Ottawa have firmly opposed the project, which has become a symbol in the battle to slow energy sector development in Canada.

The letter, however, calls Northern Gateway a key project for Canada's energy sector, provided that "extraordinary measures" are taken to protect the environment and a "new path" is forged with aboriginal groups.

"We strongly believe that Northern Gateway is a project that's right for our time," the letter says. "It is critical that Canada open up new markets so that taxpayers get full value for our energy resources and that our natural resources find a way to those markets as quickly as possible."

The letter is signed by Alberta Premier Dave Hancock, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, former Ontario Premiers Mike Harris and Ernie Eves and former Newfoundland and Labrador premier Brian Tobin.

It was also signed by former Deputy Prime Minister John Manley, a one-time Liberal MP who is now president of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, and former Conservative cabinet ministers Stockwell Day, David Emerson and Chuck Strahl, each of whom represented a B.C. riding federally.

The 40 signatories also include business leaders, including the head of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers – a major lobby group for the energy sector – as well as leaders of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the B.C. Chamber of Commerce.

The National Energy Board's review of the project conditionally approved the pipeline, subject to a long list of conditions, leaving the decision in the hands of cabinet.

"Canada stands on the edge of an unprecedented opportunity – one that promises to strengthen our entire nation. To seize it, we must build on the lessons of our past, and support the kind of environmentally and socially responsible projects that will ensure our future. Northern Gateway is such a project and that is why we support it," the letter said.

A spokesman for Mr. Hancock, the Alberta Premier, said he expects widespread discussion about the pipeline in the coming days.

"Premier Hancock supported the letter because Alberta has an important role in this discussion and it's important folks across the country are aware of the reasons Northern Gateway is a project that is right for Canada," spokesman Craig Loewen said.

Mr. Harper's government has been tight-lipped about when its decision will be released, with next Tuesday's deadline looming. Federal sources said Wednesday the decision was not expected to come down on Thursday or Friday.

The NDP and Liberals have both called in recent days for government to reject the pipeline – Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said Wednesday the government had failed to consult with First Nations or ensure adequate environmental safeguards, while NDP MP Murray Rankin called Northern Gateway a "grotesque proposal."

Mr. Harper brushed off questions about the project in the House of Commons on Wednesday.

"The reality is there has been a joint review process, a rigorous process, undertaken in terms of environmental assessment. The government has received that report. The government is in the process of examining it and the government will act on the recommendations of experts," Mr. Harper said.

Conservative MP Kelly Block, the parliamentary secretary to the Natural Resources Minister, has said government will make a decision in "due course," but gave no more specifics Wednesday. "We have been clear. Projects will only proceed if they are safe for Canadians and safe for the environment," Ms. Block said.

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