Canada's regulator recommended Thursday that the government approve a proposed pipeline to the Pacific coast amid strong opposition by environmentalists and indigenous people who hold title to some of the land the pipeline would cross.
The Joint Review Panel of energy and environmental officials spent two years canvassing opinions along the 731-mile route of the Northern Gateway pipeline, which would be used to export oil from Canada’s tar sands to Asia.
"We are of the view that opening Pacific Basin markets is important to the Canadian economy," the panel's report says. "We find that the environmental burdens associated with project construction and routine operation can generally be effectively mitigated."
The fear of oil spills is especially acute in the pristine northwestern corner of British Columbia, with its snowcapped mountains and deep ocean inlets. Many Canadians living there still remember the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989.
But economic factors appeared to be pivotal in the panel’s decision. Canada considers the Northern Gateway project and the Keystone XL pipeline to be critical for the nation, which the government says needs infrastructure in place to export its growing tar sands production.
The northern Alberta region has the world's third largest oil reserves, with 170 billion barrels of proven reserves.
The three-person review panel supported the controversial pipeline, proposed by Enbridge, an energy delivery company, as being important to the economy.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government has staunchly supported the pipeline since the U.S. delayed a final decision on TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport oil from Alberta to the Gulf Coast.
Harper has said Canada's national interest makes the $7.4 billion pipeline essential. British Columbia Environment Minister Mary Polak said the province is not yet in a situation to support the pipeline because its own conditions need to be met.
The Northern Gateway pipeline would transport 525,000 barrels of oil a day from Alberta's oil sands to the Pacific to deliver oil to Asia, mainly energy-hungry China.
With fierce opposition from environmental and indigenous groups, court challenges are expected. About 220 large oil tankers a year would visit the Pacific coast town of Kitamat, raising fears of spills and pollution.
Environmentalists and First Nations peoples (a Canadian synonym for Native tribes) could delay approval all the way to the Supreme Court.
First Nations still hold title to some of the land the pipeline would cross.
"The Northern Gateway project is being vehemently opposed by indigenous people who will not put their territories, waters and communities at risk," said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs.
"We are prepared to go to the wall against this project," he said. "We have no choice."
Canada's Natural Resource Minister Joe Oliver said the government will review the report and consult with affected groups before making a decision.
Enbridge CEO Al Monaco said he's pleased the panel found that the project is in the public interest but said the company is not celebrating because regulatory approval is just one step.
"We know more work needs to be done with some aboriginal communities," Monaco said. "We've been listening very carefully to both British Columbians and aboriginal groups to address concerns."
Meanwhile, China's growing economy is hungry for Canadian oil. Chinese state-owned companies have made multibillion-dollar investments in Canadian energy in the past few years.
"They follow this quite closely," said Wenran Jiang, an energy expert and special adviser to Alberta's Department of Energy.
He said Canada's regulator hasn't put any major conditions on the approval.
"There are no major conditions such as changing the route," he said. "One major hurdle is over, and there are many small battles ahead to win this thing."
The Associated Press