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A giant piece of pipeline is placed in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery in downtown Vancouver on August 31, 2010. The pipeline was brought there by opponents of the Northern Gateway pipeline project, which would see a bitumen pipeline built in northern B.C.Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Three environmental groups launched a court challenge Friday to the federal panel ruling that recommended the government approve the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline project in British Columbia.

The suit, filed in federal court, argues the panel report issued last month is based on insufficient evidence and fails to satisfy the legislated requirement of the environmental review process.

The panel "did not have enough evidence to support its conclusions that the Northern Gateway pipeline would not have significant adverse effects on certain aspects of the environment," said Karen Campbell, staff lawyer for EcoJustice, which is representing three groups that participated in the hearings.

In a statement, Enbridge said it believes the review process was "the most thorough and comprehensive proceeding in Canadian history" and that there is no reason to delay a federal decision while the court challenge – which it expected - is heard.

The panel was a joint effort by the National Energy Board and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and held an 18-month review of Enbridge Inc.'s proposed $6.3-billion pipeline. The line would ship 520,000 barrels per day of diluted oil sands bitumen to Kitimat, B.C., for export on super tankers.

The joint review panel found that the pipeline's role in opening the Pacific market to Canadian crude exports would benefit the entire country, and that therefore the benefits of the project outweighed the risks and impacts. However, it recommended the government impose 209 safety and environmental conditions to mitigate the risk.

Ms. Campbell said the panel failed to meet the government's own legal requirements, including strategies for protecting humpback whales and caribou, as required under the Species at Risk Act.

As well, the panel commented on the economic benefits of increased oil sands production that would result from construction of the pipeline, but refused to consider the upstream environmental impacts, including increase greenhouse gas emissions.

In an interview Friday, Ms. Campbell said the groups "would not have filed this action if we didn't think we had a fighting chance." The suit asked the federal court to prohibit the government from making a final decision on the project until it has ruled on the challenge.

A spokeswoman for Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said the government would not comment on the merits of the lawsuit.

"As the minister said before, we will thoroughly review the report, consult with affected First Nations, and then make our decision," said Melissa Lantsman, Mr. Oliver's director of communications. "Our government will continue to take action to improve the transportation safety of energy products across Canada."