The Harper government moved Friday to streamline the review and decision-making process for the proposed Northern Gateway oil pipeline, which has emerged as one of the most contentious mega-projects of modern times.
To prevent any more delays in the National Energy Board-directed study of the feasibility of the $6-billion plan to ship oilsands-derived crude through northern British Columbia, the Conservatives said the review must be completed by no later than December 2013.
The government also formalized new rules that for the first time give the Harper cabinet the final word on whether the pipeline should go ahead, even if the arms-length NEB-led panel concludes the project is environmentally unsound.
Streamlining pipeline reviews was part of the wide-ranging environmental changes included in the Conservatives' Bill C-38, the massive 2012 budget implementation legislation approved by Parliament in June.
Harper has championed Northern Gateway as a means to open up access to the Asian market for crude oil from the Alberta oilsands. Under the arrangements announced Friday, the federal government will give a final decision on building the project by June 2014.
"They're gutting the environmental review process," NDP MP Peter Julian (Burnaby-New Westminster) said. "They've put the NEB in a straitjacket and even if the NEB comes up with a decision that is in keeping with the public interest and responds to what the public hearings indicated, the Conservatives in cabinet can now throw that out and impose their own decision."
The NEB was planning to deliver its recommendations to Ottawa by late 2013. But the government was worried that the regulatory body, which had already extended the deadline once by a year, might do so again. More than 4,000 people signed up to give evidence at the hearings on whether to approve Northern Gateway.
A spokesperson for Environment Minister Peter Kent said the timelines are consistent with the timing set by the NEB panel and will ensure the Northern Gateway project is subject to a "thorough, rigorous review."
"In establishing the timeline, the government has taken into account the current status, the phase of the review and the information that has already been collected," Rob Taylor said in an email Friday. "We are confident the timeline is achievable, without compromising the thoroughness of the review."
But Julian of the NDP said, "It's a very disturbing trend and I think the Northern Gateway pipeline is a focal point for a growing belief among Canadians that the Conservatives are simply ripping up the commitments they made during the last election campaign to be transparent and to not be extreme."
With files from Bruce Campion-Smith
Â© 2012 Torstar Corporation