The Harper government is set to announce a key decision on Enbridge Inc.'s politically charged Northern Gateway project, having spent the past 18 months persuading the public that building an oil sands pipeline through British Columbia is in the national interest.
Under legislation passed in 2012, Ottawa has a Tuesday deadline for responding to a joint review panel report issued last December that recommended cabinet approve the $7.9-billion project, subject to Enbridge meeting 209 conditions.
The pipeline would carry 525,000 barrels per day of diluted bitumen to Kitimat, B.C., for export by supertanker to Asia-Pacific markets. A parallel line would carry light hydrocarbons used to dilute the gooey crude from the coast to Alberta.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said last week that the government will act on the advice of experts, hinting it would adopt the recommendations of the joint National Energy Board-Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency panel.
But the government faces a tough political battle, and is expected to qualify any approval with an admonition to Enbridge that it must win greater support in B.C. before it begins construction. The company cannot commence building the project until it has satisfied the panel that it has addressed 111 of the 209 conditions, with the rest laying down ongoing responsibilities for project management and reporting. Enbridge executives have said construction would not begin for at least 18 months.
Assuming it gets qualified approval from Ottawa this week, the company will continue its efforts to gain support from the B.C. government and from local communities, including First Nations groups that have vowed to use all means available to block construction.
The Harper government has declared it to be a national priority that the Alberta-based oil industry gain access to new markets, especially with a route through British Columbia to access faster-growing Asian markets.
The determination has been strengthened by the Obama administration's continuing delays in deciding the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry oil sands crude to the U.S. Gulf Coast. A recent report by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said the oil sands industry will need several new pipelines if it is to meet forecasted growth, which would take production from 1.9-million barrels a day last year to 4.8-million by 2030.
In early 2012, the Harper government launched an aggressive policy to vilify pipeline opponents, streamline regulatory reviews, and adopt new standards for pipeline and marine tanker safety – all to prepare the ground for federal approval of a project.
Former natural resources minister Joe Oliver insisted through that process that while Ottawa was determined to get a pipeline built, it would judge the merits of a particular project, such as Northern Gateway, on the advice of experts.
The panel that reported last December concluded the Northern Gateway pipeline and marine tanker traffic that would result would not pose undue risk to the environment, though some species would be negatively impacted.
B.C. Premier Christy Clark has laid down five conditions Enbridge must meet to win support from her government, which must issue a series of local permits for the project to proceed. To date, the company has not satisfied those conditions, including a requirement that B.C realize financial benefit.
First Nations and environmentalists remain adamantly opposed to the pipeline. They have vowed to pursue court challenges, a province-wide referendum and direct protest action to prevent it.