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A humpback whale breaks through the water outside of Hartley Bay along the Great Bear Rainforest, B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan HaywardJONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

For months now, Enbridge Inc.'s Northern Gateway pipeline proposal has had some momentum on its side. In December, a federal joint review panel recommended it be given the green light. That buttressed an already forceful economic case for the pipeline: The 1,178-km project would move 525,000 barrels of crude from Alberta, across northern British Columbia, to the port of Kitimat where it would feed Asian demand for oil.

But if Ottawa approves the pipeline, it must still persuade Canadians that the highest environmental standards have been met. On that count, the Harper government's recent decision to downgrade the protection of humpback whales off the B.C. coast ranks as an epic fail.

Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq's recommendation to reclassify the humpbacks from "threatened" to a "species of special concern" removes a major hurdle for Gateway's approval, just a couple of months before a decision is expected on the pipeline. Which is precisely why it should raise all sorts of red flags.

The scientific rationale behind a reclassification is mixed, at best. Once hunted to the brink of extinction, the humpback population has partly recovered thanks to a moratorium, but entanglement in fishing gear, collisions with ships and noise pollution continue to threaten the 80,000 that remain.

The United States still lists humpbacks as an endangered species. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, on the other hand, changed its status from "Vulnerable" to "Least Concern" six years ago. Canada's own Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada – an independent scientific advisory body for the federal government – recommended a similar downgrade in 2011.

But it wasn't until this week that the government decided to move. One has to wonder what motivates this sudden turn. It doesn't help that the vast majority of groups that submitted input on the change in the humpbacks' status are against it.

When it comes to weighing the environmental impact of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, the government should err on the side of caution. In the case of the humpback whale, it is not even coming close to giving the impression of doing so.