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Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks with community representatives in Fort Langley, B.C. Monday, Jan. 6, 2014.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Stephen Harper says his government's drive to diversify Canada's energy markets doesn't make cabinet approval of the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline project a foregone conclusion.

During a 30-minute Q&A session hosted by the Vancouver Board of Trade, Mr. Harper said on Monday that his cabinet will balance economic and environmental interests as it makes a final decision on whether to approve the $6-billion project to link the Alberta oil sands with Kitimat, B.C. Oil would then be shipped to foreign markets by tanker.

"We will not approve projects unless they are not only in our economic interests, but also meet the highest standards of environmental protection." Mr. Harper told Iain Black, the president of the Vancouver Board of Trade, who was the lone questioner during the session before a sold-out audience of 530 people in a downtown hotel.

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Mr. Harper spoke of heavy-oil projects in general, but his comments were seen as offering a view of how the federal Tories will deal with Gateway in particular.

"We want to make sure that these kinds of projects are not just viable and give us lots of economic prosperity, but we want to make sure they are environmentally safe and every measure is taken to prevent any kind of serious environmental threat or other kind of disaster and, in the rare case that anything might happen, there are adequate responses."

A National Energy Board panel has given conditional approval to Gateway, leaving it to the federal Tory cabinet to make a final decision on whether the project advanced by Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. should proceed. The panel laid down 209 conditions in a report released on Dec. 19. The cabinet has 180 days to make a decision.

In his first major appearance of 2014, Mr. Harper did not take questions from journalists.

The Gateway project has been rejected by environmentalists and First Nations. The B.C. Liberal government has declined to support the project, saying Enbridge has not adequately explained how it would deal with a heavy-oil spill on land or coastal waters.

Mr. Harper got a close-up example of the passions the project has stirred when a pair of protesters managed to outwit heavy police security and make it to the event stage, standing close to the Prime Minister as they held signs raising concerns about climate change. The pair were removed by police.

Mr. Harper also said heavy-oil projects might offer economic opportunities for First Nations through employment and economic spinoffs."If handled correctly, this is an unprecedented opportunity for aboriginal people and their communities to join the mainstream of the Canadian economy," he said.

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MP Nathan Cullen, NDP House Leader, dismissed Mr. Harper's promise of a fair hearing as lacking credibility because of such government measures as using legislation to give itself the last word on such projects instead of the National Energy Board. In this instance, however, the NEB did grant conditional approval.

Mr. Cullen said he expects the government will wait an appropriate period of time before approving the project. "I felt this was a foregone conclusion as Enbridge was proposing it," the Skeena-Bulkley Valley member said.

Asked about Mr. Harper's comments, the Gateway communications manager said his company has faith in the process of review and is optimistic about it. "Canadians should feel confident about the way projects like Gateway are reviewed," said Ivan Giesbrecht, who attended the event.

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