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B.C. native leaders weigh legal options

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VICTORIA -- The federal government's decision to put a cap on how long environmental assessment hearings can drag on isn't expected to affect the Northern Gateway pipeline project, but aboriginal reaction to the change probably will.

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver says Ottawa isn't planning to fast-track the approval process for the proposed $5.5-billion pipeline, despite his government's announcement in last month's budget project reviews would be limited to 24 months.

The Gateway assessment was always scheduled to be completed within that time frame.

But aboriginal leaders in British Columbia say they are becoming increasingly dismayed with the public-hearing process and are now seriously considering bypassing the hearings and heading straight to court.

Coastal First Nations spokesman Art Sterritt said the cancellation of a day-and-a-half of scheduled review panel hearings in the central B.C. coastal community of Bella Bella last week signalled to many aboriginals that Ottawa has already heard enough from Northern Gateway's opponents.

"My guess is they are now going to try and shut it down by the fall," said Sterritt, whose organization is an alliance of about a dozen First Nations along B.C.'s north and central coasts and Haida Gwaii.

"We are not now going to try and educate the panel as well as we had hoped we would. We are now going to review our legal options, because that's where we are going to end up, no doubt about it... There's no sense waiting around."

The three-member panel, which held its first public hearings at Kitamaat Village in January, is assessing the environmental effects of the project and is reviewing the Enbridge Inc. application under both the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the National Energy Board Act.

Under the National Energy Board Act, the panel will decide if the project is in the public interest. It will assess its environmental effects under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and make recommendations to the Conservative government.

"We're not ramming anything through," Oliver told The Canadian Press. "We don't want any project to proceed unless it's safe for the environment and safe for Canadians."

He said the Conservatives have not spoken to the panel members about altering the hearing process. But he said he believed they are aware of the government's plans to modernize the regulatory review process, including keeping project reviews to two years.

"We've had no direct communications with them," he said. "I'm assuming they are aware of where we intend to go with this legislation."

The panel estimates hearings -- including oral evidence, statements and final arguments from intervenors, government participants and Enbridge -- will conclude in April 2013, with the release of the Environmental Assessment Report in the fall of 2013 and the final decision on the project at the end of that year.

The hearings process began last January and if it wraps up on schedule, it will take just under 24 months. More than 4,300 individuals and groups have registered to speak at the hearings across British Columbia and Alberta.

Enbridge, which filed its application for regulatory approval in 2010, plans to construct an 1,170-kilometre twin pipeline from Bruderheim, Alta., to Kitimat on the northwest B.C. coast. The pipeline will carry Alberta crude oil to the West Coast for export to Asia on board huge tanker ships.

"The new rules, after they get royal assent, will apply to existing projects," said Oliver, confirming the 24-month reviews will be applied retroactively to Northern Gateway and other projects currently under environmental review.


-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 9, 2012 B6

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