Harper was commenting on the Energy East pipeline project announced Thursday by TransCanada Corp. It would deliver up to 1.1 million barrels of oil per day from Western Canada to refineries and export terminals in Quebec in late 2017 and New Brunswick one year later.
Speaking in Quebec, which is still reeling from the explosion of oil tanker rail cars that killed at least 47 people in the town of Lac-MÃ©gantic last month, Harper said pipelines are less prone to accidents than other means of transport.
"The reality, anyone who looks at the business, is that the absolutely safest way to transport energy products is through pipelines. That's the safest way you can go," he said.
But he said any new pipelines would be subjected to rigorous regulatory analysis before being given the go-ahead. "There are approval processes to look at environmental effects, the economic issues, to look at all those things and to come to independent evaluations," Harper remarked.
The new pipeline proposal has sparked an immediate outpouring of opposition from environmental groups, who say it would raise the risks of oil spills and would increase greenhouse gas emissions by opening the way to more production of oilsands-derived crude.
"It's very clear that the Energy East proposal benefits oil companies but it has no benefit for Canadians. It just puts thousands of communities across the country directly in harm's way by putting up a very massive pipeline carrying crude oil farther to the east," said Adam Scott, climate and energy program manager for Toronto-based Environmental Defence.
TransCanada's proposed pipeline has the support of the Alberta and New Brunswick governments but it's not clear yet whether Quebec has been won over.
Harper was also asked about the proposed $7.6-billion Keystone XL Canada-United States pipeline, which has been the subject of critical comments by U.S. President Barack Obama recently. Obama, who has the final say on whether Keystone will be built, has expressed skepticism about estimates of potential job-creation from construction of the line.
"The perspective of this government is very clear, it is very well-known by everyone in Washington, I think," Harper said.
"First of all, our number one priority in Canada is the creation of jobs - and clearly this is a project that will create jobs on both sides of the border, and it is in our judgment an important project, not just for the economy, for job creation, but for the long-term energy security of North America," Harper said.
The Conservative government, which has tied its economic strategy to opening up new export markets for energy, would like to see a pipeline proposal overcome safety and environmental objections.
But Keystone has become a political football in the U.S., and prospects for its approval are up in the air. And the planned Northern Gateway pipeline to carry crude from Alberta to the B.C. coast has run into stiff opposition from environmentalists, aboriginals and the B.C. government.
Commenting on the Energy East plan, NDP energy critic Peter Julian said his party favours the project in principle because it would allow Canadian crude to be refined in Canada and would decrease eastern Canadian dependence on imported oil.
But he said the Harper government needs to stop reducing spending on environmental protection and reverse procedural rulings limiting public participation in energy regulatory hearings.
"We think very strongly that Canadians want to see a very robust environmental protection system and a very clear environmental assessment of all these projects," Julian said. "We need to make absolutely sure that we have the highest possible level of pipeline safety."
On Friday, Harper announced $8.2 million in federal funding to allow Quebec City's Gilmour Hill, a historic path near the Plains of Abraham, to stay open to traffic year-round instead of closing for the winter months.
With files from Canadian Press ILLUS: Prime Minister Stephen Harper, left, visits Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeaume on Friday in Quebec City, where he called the Energy East pipeline proposal "a good idea in principle in terms of selling our energy products."