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Canadians about to see yet again that approvals don’t end pipeline battles

Pipes sit stacked at a TransCanada project in this file photo.

Scott Dalton/Bloomberg

If there's one thing that's become clear over the past decade of pipeline battles, it's that approval doesn't beget acceptance. Canadians are about to get more proof.

For those executives and politicians with big dreams of sending batches upon batches of heavy Canadian crude oil to the Pacific and onward to Asian markets, that's good reason to keep any victory dances to a minimum. These fights are far from over.

Yes, with new federal approvals in hand, Kinder Morgan Canada and Enbridge Inc. can get on with the business of working through the lists of conditions they must meet before trenching rights of way to points south and west from Alberta.

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Read more: Ottawa approves Trans Mountain pipeline, Line 3

Read more: Trans Mountain pipeline expansion key to expanding crude market

But the project that is now officially dead – Northern Gateway – is the most instructive as backers, opponents and governments huddle to hammer out strategies for their next moves, all while claiming the environmental and economic high ground. It was three years ago that Northern Gateway, the $7.9-billion pipeline proposed by Enbridge to ship oil sands-derived crude to Kitimat, B.C., from Alberta, won National Energy Board approval.

After a decade of planning, discussion and hearings, that proved to be not the beginning of the project's road to construction, but the beginning of the end.

Six months later, the Harper Conservative government gave the proposal its green light, providing that the company meet the 209 social, safety, economic and environmental conditions set out by the NEB. Several B.C. aboriginal groups remained staunchly opposed to Northern Gateway. Enbridge chief executive officer Al Monaco pledged to rebuild relationships with First Nations. Many leaders were not swayed.

Then came the federal election campaign of 2015, when Liberal candidate Justin Trudeau said that the Great Bear Rainforest was no place for an oil pipeline, and that the northern B.C. coast was all wrong for tanker traffic.

Last summer, the federal Court of Appeal reversed the green light, blasting a slipshod approach by the former government to consult with aboriginal communities before it gave final approval. By then few industry officials wagered the line could still be built.

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Tuesday's approvals don't signal clear sailing either. Battles are about to intensify for Enbridge's Line 3 replacement and Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain expansion. The curve ball in the equation is the increasingly likely resurrection of Keystone XL under the administration of president-elect Donald Trump after years as a protest point.

The Trans Mountain expansion is seen as the oil patch's best hope to get its crude to the Shangri-La known as tidewater. Today, backers say increasing pipeline capacity to the United States is all fine and good, but that long-relied-upon customer is turning into a fierce competitor as its own exports increase.

Kinder Morgan wants to use its existing right-of-way to triple the capacity to nearly 900,000 barrels a day, which would land in Burnaby, B.C., for shipment to Asia-Pacific markets. The Alberta government has been front and centre pushing for such market access, hoping for it to help jump-start its stalled economy while holding out the promise of tougher carbon restrictions.

Despite that, the wall of opposition to the expansion has been growing to include the mayors of both Burnaby and Vancouver, as well as First Nations such as the Tsleil-Waututh. Its leaders met with Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr this week to press their case that Trans Mountain should not proceed under any circumstances due to oil-spill risks that could have long-lasting impact on the coastal community. Count on busy courts. One would think Line 3 would be a breeze, given that Enbridge touted the $7.5-billion project as a safety measure – fitting out an existing route to the U.S. Midwest with all new equipment. It won NEB approval last spring, but is still hung up in the United States, where it faces opposition by environmental groups in Minnesota, including 350.org, one of the leaders of the battle against Keystone XL.

Indeed, the protests and blockade of the Dakota Access pipeline have shown opposition to projects is pancontinental in scope.

Government approval isn't the end of the fight. Not even close. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau can give his nod to a pipeline to the stars if he wants. That's when the complications really start.

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