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It's described as the largest project in Calgary-based Enbridge Inc's history and although most Canadians haven't heard about it, a major expansion of the Line 3 pipeline has moved one step closer to reality.
Canada's national pipeline watchdog, the National Energy Board (NEB), gave its stamp of approval for the project on Monday. The replacement proposal would allow Enbridge to modernize, widen and increase the capacity of the existing pipeline to 760,000 barrels per day between Hardisty, Alberta and Superior, Wisconsin. This is nearly double its current capacity due to existing pressure restrictions imposed for safety reasons.
At a news conference, Robert Steedman, the NEB's chief environmental officer, said that a three-member panel of the regulator reviewed the project and determined it was unlikely to cause any adverse environmental impacts following a comprehensive environmental review.
Immediately after Steedman's news conference, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government announced it would be double-checking the regulator's homework, before making a final decision on whether to approve the project in the fall.
"Project reviews and consultation must be thorough to carry the public’s trust," said Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr in a statement. "Now that the NEB has completed its review, the government will take additional steps to determine if the project is in the national interest. This process includes Natural Resources Canada officials undertaking additional Indigenous consultations, and I welcome the views of communities and the public as we move toward a final decision this fall.”
The government also said it would launch a new website to invite the public to comment on the project - something that the NEB had said it did as part of its original review. The NEB's public consultation process has been criticized by many, including federal Liberals, following new rules introduced by the former Conservative government in 2012, that allowed it to prevent concerned people from testifying at hearings for proposed pipelines if they could not prove they were directly affected by the projects.
Enbridge did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement posted on its website, it said it was "pleased" with the decision and would continue to work with Indigenous and other communities to ensure they "realize" economic benefits. It also said it hoped to bring the replacement pipeline into service by 2019 depending on final government approvals in the U.S. and Canada.
The new federal review of Line 3 is based on tougher standards introduced by Carr and his cabinet colleague, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, in January. These standards require the government to review climate change-related impacts of projects as well as ensure adequate consultations with Indigenous people and other communities that may be affected by new development.
The NEB's panel concluded that the Line 3 replacement project was in the public interest and recommended that the company must follow 89 conditions to proceed with the construction. Steedman added that the NEB was expecting Enbridge would soon submit a proposal to abandon the parts of the original aging pipeline. Line 3 is nearly 50 years old.
“We require pipelines always to be safe and operated in a safe manner," said Steedman, who spoke to reporters from the NEB's Calgary office.
If approved, Enbridge's Line 3 replacement could be welcome news for Alberta oil producers seeking access to new markets. But the project would also likely face fierce opposition from Indigenous communities and environmentalists who are worried the major pipeline project, which crosses the border in Manitoba, may cause a disaster and contribute to expansion of oilsands production - Canada's fastest growing source of climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions.
Some earlier refurbishment work by Enbridge on the Line 3 pipeline, resulted in an environmental mess, prompting complaints from local landowners and financial penalties from the NEB.
But Steedman noted that there weren't a lot of landowners who participated in the NEB's review of the replacement project, suggesting that this was likely because of Enbridge's efforts to engage with the property owners in advance.
The project would also be subject to some U.S. regulatory reviews and permits prior to final approval, but it already has a presidential permit - a missing ingredient that stalled rival TransCanada Corp's Keystone XL pipeline, the Canadian Press reported.
Enbridge has said that the Line 3 project, estimated to cost about $7.5 billion, is the largest project in its history.