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Jim Prentice gives an oath as he is sworn in as Albertaâs 16th Premier in Edmonton, Alberta on Monday September 15, 2014. The Premier says there are other options besides Kitimat from which to load unrefined, heavy oil onto tankers destined for Asian ports, saying the environmental concerns of Coastal First Nations to the existing plan need to be respected.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Getting First Nations approval for the Northern Gateway pipeline will be "pretty tough," as long as the proposed terminus remains at Kitimat, B.C., says Alberta Premier Jim Prentice.

The Premier says there are other options besides Kitimat from which to load unrefined, heavy oil onto tankers destined for Asian ports, saying the environmental concerns of Coastal First Nations to the existing plan need to be respected. On the job barely a week, Mr. Prentice has already indicated he is conscious of Alberta's image as an environmental miscreant and plans to address it – including developing a far-reaching climate-change strategy.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, the Premier said he remains optimistic that a solution can be found to overcome B.C. First Nations pipeline objections, allowing Alberta to gain access to vital tidewater on the West Coast.

"I believe there is a way to get to success on this, I really do," said Mr. Prentice, who consulted with aboriginal groups in B.C. on behalf of project proponent Enbridge before winning the leadership of Alberta's Progressive Conservative Party earlier this month. "I have a very strong relationship with First Nations in B.C., particularly on the coast where the problem [opposition to the project] has been centred."

That relationship was also forged during Mr. Prentice's time as federal minister of Indian Affairs in 2006-07. After being sworn in as Premier last week, he announced he was taking on ministerial responsibilities for aboriginal relations. (He is also a former federal environment minister). He said he has already spoken with Christy Clark and the two have begun to build a positive relationship, something that often did not exist between the B.C. Premier and her former Alberta counterpart, Alison Redford.

"My sense is there is a way to firstly address the environmental issues that First Nations have raised," Mr. Prentice said. He said many "are very good points and we've collectively not done a very good job of responding to them, particularly among the Coastal First Nations. People say it's all about money – well, it's not about money. It's actually about ensuring people who have lived on the West Coast of Canada from time immemorial, that their lives are not going to be changed irretrievably by some kind of disaster."

Under the current Gateway plan, Alberta crude would be loaded onto tankers at Kitimat and then navigate the ecologically pristine waters of Douglas Channel before hitting open ocean. Fears of a spill have been central to virulent opposition expressed by native and environmental groups.

Prince Rupert to the north is one of a few locations that have been discussed as potential alternatives to Kitimat. In the past, Enbridge has said that a route to Prince Rupert, where there is already an established port facility, would be trickier from an engineering standpoint because of the overland terrain that would have to be traversed.

Regarding the possibility of refining the crude in Alberta before shipping it across B.C., the Alberta Premier said the extent to which that might be necessary would depend on where the oil is going to end up on the West Coast. He said there are "multiple possibilities."

"Not an unlimited number, but there are at least four possible locations for a West Coast terminal and they all involve different environmental risks," he said. "A lot of the questions that First Nations people have been asking relate to tankers and pilotage requirements and the first-responder mechanics and the role they're going to play and are people going to be bonded and where's the money going to come from if there's a problem. And many of these questions have not been answered to their satisfaction."

Asked whether he believes the Gateway terminus should be relocated to Prince Rupert or another destination, Mr. Prentice said, "Everything I've heard from the Haisla who live there is they don't agree with the terminal being in Kitimat." Is it possible to get First Nations approval if there is no support at the planned terminus site? "It's pretty tough," the Premier said.

B.C.'s Ms. Clark was unavailable to comment on Mr. Prentice's remarks.

In an e-mail statement, Enbridge spokesman Ivan Giesbrecht said federal approval for the project includes a terminus at Kitimat. "At this stage, Northern Gateway has not contemplated any applications to the National Energy Board to change the design," he said. "Our focus has been to re-engage with First Nations to build trust, establish respectful dialogue and create meaningful partnerships."

Mr. Prentice said the Gateway terminus, wherever it ends up, will be a huge economic driver. He said there needs to be a discussion about "what's the role of First Nations going to be, what share of the economic opportunity will they benefit from." After settling on the terminus, the Premier said, "the rest of it is just a pipeline that's going to be underground. But the economic driver and the economic benefits really accrue at the coast in a very substantive way."

He added: "There's lot of work to be done. I'm under no illusions."

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