Speeding up Northern Gateway review risks ‘battle’

B.C. First Nations are reacting with anger to the government's decision to retroactively shorten the regulatory review for the Northern Gateway pipeline project in British Columbia.

"This incredibly stupid move on the part of the Harper government will only serve to expedite the battle in the courtrooms and on the land itself," said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs. He described the situation between B.C. aboriginals and the federal and provincial governments as "volatile."

This "pipeline is going to traverse the territories of literally dozens and dozens of First Nations. And all of them have said very clearly that they do not support the Northern Gateway project and that they will do everything that they can to stop this project," added Phillip.

In Thursday's budget, the government announced a streamlining of environmental assessments so that major projects receive only one review lasting no longer than 24 months. The new, shortened deadlines would be applied retroactively to projects that are already being reviewed.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty confirmed this includes Northern Gateway, which is before a Joint Review Panel (JRP) of the National Energy Board and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. Under the new rules, a review panel would have to be finished within 24 months.

That could mean the Northern Gateway review would have to wrap up in May of this year. That is a full year-and-a-half before it was scheduled to end.

"What it does is it completely eclipses any hope or opportunity for reconciliation," said Phillip.

Enbridge, the company proposing to build Northern Gateway, would be happy if the remaining 18 months in the JRP process were cut in half.

"There is demand for both gas and oil in the far east. The clock is ticking, though, quite clearly. So I think there's a need for the country to move forward here and to make best use of these opportunities while they exist," argues Enbridge spokesman, Paul Stanway.

Once the law is passed, the government will begin a transition process that will decide how best to speed up each individual review that is already underway.

"We have to see what makes sense in terms of specific projects so we don't undermine the ability of the regulator to complete the regulatory review in a comprehensive way," Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver told CBC News.

On CBC-TV's Power & Politics with Evan Solomon, Oliver also hinted that only certain people and groups would be allowed to speak at future reviews.

"We want to allow everyone who has a direct interest in a particular project to have the time. What we don't need, frankly, is thousands of people belonging to the same organization coming and repeating the same packaged presentation."

The opposition claims the government's plan will erode the public's confidence in the project's safety.

"We have one pipeline incident in Canada per week. Once a week there is an incident somewhere on our pipeline system. We need to take those kinds of issues into account, especially when this pipeline is going through people's backyards," said Megan Leslie, the NDP's environment critic.

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