Prime Minister Stephen Harper for the first time sounded a cautious note about the approval process for the highly controversial Northern Gateway pipeline that would carry oilsands-derived crude from Alberta to the British Columbia coast.
Harper's government has been a strong supporter of the proposed pipeline and has given itself the power to make the final decision on whether the $6-billion project should go ahead regardless of the outcome of an independent environmental review process by federal regulators.
But on Tuesday he appeared to backpedal as he qualified his commitment to Northern Gateway, which polls show is widely unpopular in B.C.
"The only way governments can handle controversial projects of this manner is to ensure that things are evaluated on an independent basis scientifically, and not simply on political criteria," Harper told reporters during a visit to B.C. "And as I've said repeatedly, the government does not pick and choose particular projects," the prime minister said.
"The government obviously wants to see British Columbia's export trade continue to grow and diversify, that's important. But projects have to be evaluated on their own merits."
Harper said he has discussed the project with B.C. Premier Christy Clark, who has issued an ultimatum demanding a greater share of the proposed pipeline's revenues in exchange for her province's support of Northern Gateway - a stance that caused a flare-up with Alberta.
The federal Conservatives have no intention of interceding in a squabble over natural resource revenues among provincial governments, Harper said.
"I'm not going to get into an argument or a discussion about how we divide hypothetical revenues," he remarked at a news conference in Vancouver.
Harper's emphasis on the importance of a non-partisan assessment of Northern Gateway is a distinct change in tone for the federal Conservatives.
In the past year, the Tories have stressed that the project is a national priority and said Ottawa should not allow environmentalists opposing the pipeline to bog down joint National Energy Board-Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency hearings on the project.
On Friday, the Harper government streamlined the vetting process for the current Northern Gateway hearings to ensure a final recommendation is given to the federal cabinet no later than December 2013. And Friday's announcement implemented changes in the federal budget that will for the first time give the Harper cabinet the final say on Northern Gateway regardless of what the NEB recommends.
"It's a desperate effort at damage control," NDP MP Peter Julian (Burnaby-New Westminster) said of Harper's comments. He said the Conservatives must realize opposition to the project is so strong "that if they try to push Northern Gateway on British Columbians, there won't be a safe Conservative seat in all of B.C. in the next election."
And Julian said Harper's words are contradicted by "everything this government has done over the past year."
The thrust of Conservative policies, Julian said, has been "to gut the environmental assessment process so that politics trumps any sort of scientific or environmental evaluation."
MP Elizabeth May, the Green Party leader, said the emphasis on an independent, science-based decision is an "about-face" for Harper.
"It's the first time he's said it," she told CBC-TV. May said Harper's latest stance sounds like a "political dodge" to help Clark, an ally of the federal Conservatives who is facing a tough re-election fight next spring.
Enbridge Inc.'s pipeline would carry crude oil from Alberta across the Rockies to the B.C. coast, where 200 supertankers a year would land to transport the petroleum to Asia and the United States.
Fear of an oil spill has fanned opposition to the project among environmentalists, aboriginals, local governments and national church organizations.
And in a rare public split in the Harper government, Heritage Minister James Moore last week came down hard on the pipeline proposal, saying Enbridge is losing the public relations war in B.C. Moore said the project "will not survive public scrutiny" unless the company does a better job of engaging the public on its plans.
While qualifying Ottawa's position on the approval process for Northern Gateway, Harper continued to point out the "vital" importance to B.C. of diversifying its commercial dealings with Asia.
He also said Ottawa will continue to increase spending on surveillance programs and other controls intended to avert environmental damage from natural resource projects.