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Janet Holder’s departure comes two months after Enbridge said the pipeline was unlikely to start up in 2018 as originally planned.

A key executive in charge of Enbridge Inc.'s Northern Gateway pipeline is retiring, dealing a blow to the company's efforts to build support for the project in British Columbia.

Janet Holder, who served as executive vice-president, western access, is leaving Enbridge effective Dec. 31, the Calgary-based company said in a statement Wednesday. Ms. Holder was put in charge of the $7.9-billion oil pipeline in 2011, and she was featured in a series of television commercials touting her B.C. roots and the project's benefits. Enbridge said the project would continue under the leadership of project president John Carruthers.

"Enbridge is deeply grateful for Janet's enormous contribution to the company over a career of tireless service," Enbridge chief executive officer Al Monaco said in statement.

"In leading the Northern Gateway team, Janet guided one of the most difficult projects in Canadian history through to regulatory approval, representing Enbridge and its partners with integrity. She built trust with communities by listening to their concerns and demonstrating Northern Gateway's commitment to building a safe project that protects the environment."

Ms. Holder's departure comes two months after Enbridge said the pipeline was unlikely to start up in 2018 as originally planned. The controversial project, approved last December by a panel of federal regulators, would transport up to 525,000 barrels per day of oil sands-derived crude oil to a new supertanker port at Kitimat, B.C., giving Canada's oil industry its first major access to Pacific markets.

But the project faces several court challenges from aboriginal and environmental groups as well as rising costs. Calgary-based Enbridge said this month that the price tag for the project will be "substantially higher" than earlier estimates, as a result of a more detailed engineering analysis and costs associated with meeting the project's 209 approval conditions.

A series of rival pipelines risk sapping commercial support from the pipeline the longer delays persist, industry analysts have said. TransCanada Corp. last month filed an application for its $12-billion Energy East project, which would carry 1.1 million b/d of oil to Canada's East Coast. Kinder Morgan Inc. is also seeking approval to boost capacity on its Pacific-bound Trans Mountain line.

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