An independent Canadian federal panel on Thursday approved Enbridge's proposal to build a new pipeline from the tar sands of Alberta to the British Columbia coast, a significant gain in the industry's long campaign to find export markets for the nation's abundant but carbon-heavy form of crude oil.
The panel set 209 conditions on the project as a way to overcome environmental and safety concerns. Even that, it said, would not guarantee that there would be no environmental harm.
But its central message was that the economic interest in building the line was paramount—"that Canadians will be better off with this project than without it."
"We are of the view that opening Pacific Basin markets is important to the Canadian economy and society," the panel declared. "Societal and economic benefits can be expected from the project.
"We find that the environmental burdens associated with project construction and routine operation can generally be effectively mitigated," it went on. "Some environmental burdens may not be fully mitigated in spite of reasonable best efforts and techniques."
"The environmental, societal, and economic burdens of a large oil spill, while unlikely and not permanent, would be significant," the panel said. "Through our conditions we require Northern Gateway to implement appropriate and effective spill prevention measures and spill response capabilities, so that the likelihood and consequences of a large spill would be minimized."
The Conservative federal government—led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper—welcomed the recommendation, which had been widely anticipated. Ottowa's final decision is expected within months, and will almost certainly be positive.
"The Panel's report represents a rigorous, open and comprehensive science-based assessment," said Joe Oliver, Canada's minister of natural resources.
"Our Government will continue to improve the safe transportation of energy products across Canada," he said. "No project will be approved unless it is safe for Canadians and safe for the environment."
Opponents, including aboriginal First Nation groups whose rights are protected by law and treaty, said they would carry on the fight in court and in protests. "This project will never be built," said Chief Martin Louie of the Nadleh Whut’en First Nation. "We have drawn a line in the earth they cannot, and will not, cross."