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Protesters carrying cutouts of salmon demonstrate against the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline in Vancouver, B.C., on May 10, 2014.


Canada Approves Controversial Northern Gateway Pipeline: What Now?

Project would carry tar sands crude to western coast for export.

Canada's federal government approved the controversial Northern Gateway oil pipeline on Tuesday, but pipeline proponent Enbridge must overcome environmental safety concerns before the crude can flow.

The $7.9 billion pipeline would carry 525,000 barrels per day of crude oil from Alberta's tar sands in the east to the British Columbia coast, where it could be exported to markets abroad. As part of the project, the port of Kitimat, located on a coastal inlet, would be expanded to accommodate about 220 oil tankers every year.

Canadian producers are seeking new markets for their oil, 99 percent of which goes to the United States. The Northern Gateway decision "is another important step for Canada to access global markets and world prices, and earn full value for our oil resource," said Greg Stringham, vice president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, in a statement.

A joint review panel convened by Canada's National Energy Board recommended approval for the project last December. But unlike in the United States, where many have been waiting for a verdict from the Obama administration on the Keystone XL project, an approval from the federal government does not amount to a green light for construction in Canada. Instead, Enbridge must meet 209 conditions—an exhaustive list covering everything from environmental impact to detailed filings about construction and operation—before it can start building the pipeline.

"Today constitutes another step in the process," said Greg Rickford, Canada's minister of natural resources, in a statement announcing the approval. "The proponent [Enbridge] clearly has more work to do in order to fulfill the public commitment it has made to engage with Aboriginal groups and local communities along the route."

High Hurdles

Enbridge expects that the effort to meet required conditions for the project will take 12 to 15 months, said Janet Holder, the Enbridge executive leading the Northern Gateway effort, on a media call Tuesday. After that, the National Energy Board would need to review and approve Enbridge's work. "We are working hard on those [conditions]," she said. "We are required to meet them, and we intend to do that."

In addition to the federal government's hurdles, British Columbia's provincial government has laid out what Enbridge characterizes as five "tough" conditions for the pipeline, including "world-leading marine oil spill response, prevention and recovery systems," a "fair share of fiscal and economic benefits" for the province, and attention to legal requirements regarding the pipeline's crossing of territory belonging to indigenous First Nations tribes.

The project faces staunch opposition from environmentalists and indigenous groups concerned about its impact on salmon, caribou, and grizzly bears. Safety concerns have also been raised about other species, such as the all-white "spirit bear" that lives in the Great Bear Rainforest, which lies along the path of prospective oil tanker traffic. (Read "Pipeline Through Paradise" in National Geographic magazine.)

Local Opposition

First Nations opposition to the pipeline, particularly in British Columbia, is strong. "As Canadians, as British Columbians, and as First Nations, there's just some projects out there that will never be supported," said Terry Teegee, tribal chief of the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council. "And this is one of them."

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A fisherman paddles the waters of the Kitimat in northern British Columbia, near where Enbridge plans to build its Northern Gateway pipeline terminal facility.

The resistance from coastal First Nations is a primary reason why Elizabeth Shope, international program advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, believes the Northern Gateway pipeline will never be built. "There is simply no way around the opposition of the First Nations," Shope said. The fact that Enbridge will need to apply for "dozens of provincial permits," she said, means that "the approval to begin construction for Northern Gateway is far from guaranteed, even [with] federal approval."

Enbridge executives said that discussions with First Nations would be a top priority in the coming months. "We know we have more work to do to reengage with some of our First Nation communities along the proposed route," Holder said. "And we are committed to doing that work." CEO Al Monaco said Enbridge had equity partnership agreements with 26 of the 45 First Nations along the pipeline route.

But Art Sterritt, executive director of the Coastal First Nations, said his group was weighing legal action to stop the pipeline. "We'll see if Enbridge dares to put its shovels in the ground," he said in a statement. "We will never allow oil tankers into our territorial waters."

The Northern Gateway is smaller in scope than TransCanada's proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would be able to carry 830,000 barrels per day of Canadian crude to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. But both projects are key symbols in the fight over continued development of Canada's tar sands.

"This has the potential to be a really important point in our generation," said Teegee. It will be a test, he says, of "really how strong are we as people at asserting our rights, our human rights, our rights as indigenous people, in terms of a project that we are so steadfastly against."

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.