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OTTAWA—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 oil sands-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 press 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.
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