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Canada's energy regulator has once again recommended that the federal government approve the Trans Mountain oil pipeline and tanker expansion project.
The Calgary-based National Energy Board (NEB) found that the proposed project is "justified" to find more oil markets and to create jobs, despite likely "significant" adverse environmental impacts on Southern resident killer whales, on Indigenous cultural use related to the whales and on greenhouse gas emissions.
The decision triggered renewed outrage among some First Nations representatives and environmental groups. They pledged to continue fighting the pipeline and vowed it would never be built. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, said it’s “ludicrous” that economic interests are considered more important than killer whales.
On the contrary, Perrin Beatty, CEO of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, said he was pleased the NEB sees the project as a matter of "national interest" and "now it is up to the federal government to take the steps necessary for getting this pipeline built without any further delay."
In a report issued Friday, the NEB made 16 recommendations to the government related to management of the Salish Sea, measures to reduce underwater noise and to protect marine species from collision, reduce the emissions of vessels, among other issues.
Minister of Natural Resources Amarjeet Sohi called the NEB ruling "an important milestone" as the federal government follows the guidance of the Federal Court of Appeal which sent the NEB back to the drawing board to examine marine impacts and instructed the government to fulfill consultations with First Nations along the Alberta-Burnaby, B.C pipeline route.
Sohi said government officials had met with more than 85 Indigenous communities and the federal cabinet will make a decision on Trans Mountain "once we are satisfied that the Crown has adequately fulfilled its duty to consult."
There is a 90-day deadline for government to respond to the NEB decision, making it late May, though that deadline can be extended.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley told a news conference on Friday that the pipeline debate needs to continue in a respectful way, so it doesn't divide the country.
"We need to hold the federal government's feet to the fire and keep countering misinformation with facts and the good, sound reason for why this pipeline needs to happen," Notley said.
Notley said she was still optimistic and that the NEB recommendations would not be a barrier.
"A lot of work had already been underway with respect to the project itself," she said. "If the federal government approves the project in a reasonable time, there should be very little delay between that and when shovels get back in the ground."
Taxpayers own the project
The NEB had in an earlier decision imposed 156 conditions on the project if it is approved. They are related to emergency preparedness, environmental protection; consultation with Indigenous communities; socio-economic matters; pipeline safety and integrity; commercial support prior to construction; and financial responsibility on the part of the company.
The Canadian taxpayer owns the project, since the federal Liberal government said in May last year that it would buy the existing Trans Mountain pipeline and its troubled expansion project proposal from Texas-based Kinder Morgan for $4.5 billion.
The government has said it does not expect to be a long-term owner of the project.
The recommendations follow a series of hearings needed after the Federal Court of Appeal ruled last August that prior approval be quashed due to mistakes made by both the NEB and the Trudeau government in assessing the impacts of the project on the west coast of B.C. and a failure to adequately consult with affected First Nations in a meaningful way.
The NEB said it applied the precautionary principle, requiring that environmental measures must anticipate and prevent environmental harm, when considering human industrial involvement with the "complex and interconnected ecosystem" of the Salish Sea.
The NEB found that “project-related marine shipping is likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects on the Southern resident killer whale and on Indigenous cultural use associated with the Southern resident killer whale,” Robert Steedman, the regulator's chief environmental officer, told reporters in Calgary.
Ian Anderson, President and CEO of Trans Mountain, said the NEB ruling is "an important element of the broader process that remains underway, which includes the federal government’s consultation with Indigenous communities."
Anderson said the report "provides specific and achievable conditions under which we must operate to ensure, if approved, the Project will protect the marine and terrestrial environment and communities."
"The conditions are enforced by the NEB and demonstrate the rigour and detail that will go into every stage of the Project to mitigate risks, respect the rights of those directly affected and operate safely, should the Project be approved,"Anderson said in a release from Calgary, noting that preparations for the project have been underway since 2012.
The plight of the Southern resident killer whale was a pivotal point for the NEB to consider as part of the court's request for it to revisit the effects of project-related shipping on marine life.
Steedman said that the Salish Sea that separates Vancouver and the mainland from Vancouver Island is already highly degraded and the conditions there are already detrimental to killer whales.
“The effects on marine mammals are already significant without the project,” Steedman said, so the panel concluded that even the relatively minor incremental effects of project-related shipping would be significant.
Greenhouse gas emissions from project-related marine vessels would likely also be significant, the NEB found. If a spill were to happen, the environmental effects would be significant, it found.
The federal government must now review the NEB's report and decide whether to proceed with the project, and it is expected to eventually give it the green light.
Project has sparked fierce opposition
If built, the Trans Mountain expansion project would triple the capacity of the existing Trans Mountain pipeline system, allowing it to ship up to 890,000 barrels of bitumen, the heavy oil derived from Alberta's oilsands, as well as other petroleum products.
Both the federal and Alberta governments have said that the project is critical to allowing the oil and gas industry to grow, giving it access to new markets in Asia.
Scientists, environmentalists and several communities along the pipeline route, including Indigenous nations, say that the project is too risky and would push Canada's climate change goals out of reach.
The project has sparked fierce opposition, particularly in B.C., where thousands have indicated they are prepared to engage in civil disobedience to stop the pipeline and protect the coast.
The federal Conservatives's natural resources critic issued a statement saying that the report "does not get us anywhere closer to the pipeline getting built."
"All it does is put the decision back in the hands of the same Liberal cabinet that failed to start construction in the first place," said Shannon Stubbs, adding that her party had proposed back in September that the government immediately restart Indigenous consultations and introduce emergency legislation to affirm that Transport Canada was the appropriate department to assess the impact of marine traffic.
“Conservatives would also have immediately used the constitutional powers of the federal government to declare the Trans Mountain Expansion project in the national interest, removing the threats from provincial and municipal leaders to block to the project," she said.
An overview of the conditions and recommendations the NEB delivered to government can be found here.
Updated at 6:31 pm ET with Alberta premier's comments and 90-day deadline reference. Earlier update at 3:49 pm ET to add comment from a First Nations leader and Chamber of Commerce and 3:21 pm ET to include comment from TMX CEO and federal Natural Resources Minister, and earlier to include comment from NEB news conference, and at 12:38 pm to include more detail from NEB's report and federal opposition response.