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Natural Resources minister back in B.C. as clock ticks down on pipeline decision

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VANCOUVER - With the clock ticking down for his government's decision on Northern Gateway, Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford said Monday there have been significant strides forward on pipeline and marine traffic safety in talks between Ottawa and First Nations.

For at least the fourth time in as many weeks, Rickford was in British Columbia. This time, he was speaking at an aboriginal summit on pipeline and marine tanker safety.

"Obviously, there are varied reactions. We've all, I think to a certain extent, agreed that there are issues around a specific project or a specific aspect of energy infrastructure, energy transportation, but we're plenty capable to have those conversations," Rickford told reporters following his speech.

"I'm confident that we've laid the foundation for an effective dialogue moving forward."

But leaders of the three most powerful aboriginal organizations in B.C. said the answer remains "no" to Northern Gateway.

"In the event that the Harper government attempt to ram this through... it will serve to poison the well with respect to the LNG efforts to develop First Nations' support for that set of proposals," warned Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.

"It's going to completely undermine and damage what's left of the relationship between First Nations and both provincial and federal governments."

Grand Chief Ed John, head of the First Nations Summit, said while LNG falls under provincial jurisdiction, there are concerns about the cumulative effects of many different projects. Those include fracking, oil pipelines, the B.C. government's Site C hydroelectric dam and mining.

Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould, regional leader of the Assembly of First Nations, urged about 150 people attending the conference organized by the Musqueam nation to take a measured approach to the divisive issue.

But she also scolded the federal government for its use of omnibus budget legislation to make changes to environmental laws and governance.

"Our relationship with the federal government remains challenged, to say the least," Wilson Raybould said after her speech.

Phillip was more blunt.

"It's very difficult to sit there and listen to Minister Rickford talk about building partnerships and collaboration when everything they've done has been done unilaterally, without any discussion," he said.

"And he stands up there and he maintains there's this strong engagement, this robust engagement with First Nations and that's just absolutely not true."

With a June 17 deadline for a final decision on the $6.8-billion Northern Gateway pipeline, Rickford gave no hint of when or what that decision will be.

He did, however, reiterate the need for a pipeline leading somewhere for land-locked Alberta oil. Rickford's predecessor Joe Oliver, now the federal finance minister, echoed those comments on the other side of the country.

"Canadians need to understand the consequences of not moving our resources to tidewater," Oliver said at an international economic conference in Montreal.

A diversified market for Canadian oil is worth $30 billion a year, he said.

Canada has 168 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, possibly 300 billion with advances in technology, Oliver said. The country also has 37 trillion cubic metres of natural gas.

"So the choice is stark: head down the path of economic decline, higher unemployment, limited funds for social programs like health care, continuing deficits and growing debt or achieve prosperity and security now and for future generations through the responsible development of our resources."

Rickford told industry and aboriginal leaders in Vancouver that global demand for energy is expected to increase by one third by 2035.

In B.C., investment in natural gas is expected to bring $180 billion in economic benefits over the next 25 years, he said. Across Canada, hundreds of resource projects worth $650 billion are planned or underway.

"However, none of that can come to fruition unless we have a strong and confident relationship, in particular between First Nations communities and the provincial government and federal government," Rickford told reporters.

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