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B.C. government rethinks pipeline-approval process

Protestors march through the streets of Kitimat, B.C., on June 24, 2012, in a rally against the Northern Gateway pipeline project.

Robin Rowland/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The lawn of the B.C. legislature is expected to be filled with protesters on Monday for a mass sit-in against the proposed Northern Gateway oil pipeline. Scorched by the growing opposition, the B.C. government has already adopted a more hostile stand toward the $6-billion project.

But the province, having handed off the authority for an environmental review to the federal government, has limited its options to block the project. And it is destined to repeat the same process for a second pipeline proposal, when energy giant Kinder Morgan seeks permission to build another oil pipeline across the province.

Unless, that is, it tears up a 2010 pact with Ottawa that gave up the province's role in reviewing such projects.

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"I think after going through this process with the Northern Gateway assessment, that we will evaluate the agreement and assess whether or not it is working the way we hoped it would," B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake said in an interview, "or if there are better ways to do it." He later stressed that is his own preference and has not been adopted as a cabinet position.

From the outset, the B.C. Liberal government sought to take a neutral stand on the oil pipeline proposals, opting to await the results of the federal process. Premier Christy Clark refined that position in the summer when she outlined five demands she said must be met before her government will accept the project.

The province's ability to shape the project was curtailed in June, 2010, when the province agreed to accept the National Energy Board's environmental review process as its own on major project proposals including transmission lines, offshore oil development or pipelines.

Mr. Lake said that streamlined process is serving B.C. well in the case of Gateway. The province has taken part as an intervenor but has no final say about the outcome. He added: "It is too soon to judge whether or not this is the preferred process [for future projects]."

If the Northern Gateway project wins federal approval but does not meet B.C.'s demands – which include enhanced environmental protection and a benefit-sharing agreement – Ms. Clark has said her government could still block construction by denying permits, or by directing B.C. Hydro to refuse to provide the pipeline with the necessary power to run the pumps.

That too is allowed under the agreement, which states that "projects covered by this agreement must still obtain all applicable British Columbia provincial permits or authorizations." Northern Gateway would, if it wins federal approval, still need an estimated 60 permits from B.C. to proceed.

Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline was built in the 1950s, without the firestorm of protest that now surrounds the Enbridge proposal. It already transports about 300,000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta to the West Coast.

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The company is preparing an application, to be tabled in 2014, that would more than double the pipeline's capacity. It would mean increased tanker traffic in Vancouver's busy harbour.

Opposition Leader Adrian Dix says that if he wins the May, 2013, election, he would would use a clause in the equivalency agreement with Ottawa to opt out. Enbridge – or Kinder Morgan – would then have to submit to a second provincial review, or the review would have to be conducted jointly with both levels of government.

"We are asserting our jurisdiction," he said. If B.C. had control, the decision would be made in the end by cabinet – in his case, a cabinet that has committed to oppose the pipeline. "That's the process," he said. "Enbridge and Kinder Morgan and anyone else have the right to apply."

The result – a veto from B.C. – might be the same under the B.C. Liberal government, but Mr. Dix said his process would be better than threats to smother a project through red tape.

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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