OTTAWA - The federal government added pressure Friday to a politically-charged debate over the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline project across British Columbia and Alberta as it announced an environmental assessment of the project must be completed in the next 16 months.
In a letter to the joint review panel examining the $6-billion proposal, Environment Minister Peter Kent and National Energy Board chairman Gaetan Caron set a deadline of Dec. 31, 2013 for the report.
The new deadline is required to comply with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the Harper government's omnibus budget legislation passed earlier this year.
The legislation included numerous bills that the Conservatives wanted to pass after winning their first majority in the May 2011 election, including measures they say will speed regulatory reviews and cut overlapping efforts.
The joint review panel has been holding public hearings on the project that would deliver crude from Alberta's oilsands to tankers in Kitimat, B.C., for shipment to Asia.
The announcement Friday came as at least one Conservative cabinet minister expressed doubts about Enbridge's safety record.
Heritage Minister James Moore, the senior minister for B.C., told a Vancouver radio station that Enbridge must take environmental safety more seriously if it expects the controversial pipeline project to be approved.
"I believe in getting Canada's energy products to world markets, and I believe that's in Canada's interests and I believe that's in British Columbia's interests," he said earlier this week on the Bill Good Show on CKNW.
"But this project will not survive public scrutiny unless Enbridge takes far more seriously their obligations to engage with the public and to answer those very legitimate questions about the way in which they have operated their business in the very recent past."
However, Moore declined to wade into the debate over whether B.C. should get a larger portion of the potential revenues, as the province's Premier Christy Clark has demanded.
Clark said Friday that Ottawa and Alberta must be willing to talk about giving the province its "fair share" of the pipeline proceeds, though her counterpart in Alberta has rebuffed the notion of sharing the money.
"Premier Redford needs to decide if she wants to come to table before these discussions can happen. So far Alberta havenít indicated much interest in talking to us about this," Clark said.
"Alberta and the federal government have to come to the table with British Columbia to talk about making sure B.C. gets its fair share and to talk about how weíre going to protect our environment to the best standards of the world.
"Once they do that we can start talking about the issues. But if they donít do it, the pipeline will not happen."
Aboriginal groups, environmentalists and others have voiced concern over what a spill from the pipeline, or from a tanker on the West Coast, could do to the environment.
A firm timeline for reviews can jeopardize the level of information available and the ability to dig deeper for more, said Dan Woynillowicz, a spokesman at environmental think-tank The Pembina Institute.
"It begs the question: are you really going to have the most robust assessment and the highest quality information available to the review panels when they're making their decision?" he said.
The Enbridge case could be precedent-setting because it is very contentious and generating a lot of political attention, he added.
"In some cases, it's going to be the crucible in which this new approach is really hammered out."
Despite Moore's comments, Ottawa reaffirmed Friday that it is committed to shifting Canada's energy export reliance on the U.S.
Pipelines like Northern Gateway, that would make it easier to ship Canadian crude to oil-hungry markets in Asia, are a key part of that plan.
"Diversification of our energy markets is a critical strategic objective of our government in order to create jobs and economic growth," Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said in a statement Friday.
"We will continue to work in partnership with the provincial governments to encourage achieving this objective. In particular to the Northern Gateway project, it is currently before the Joint Review Panel who are reviewing all the environmental considerations to make sure it is safe for the environment and Canadians."
In a statement Friday, Enbridge president Al Monaco defended the company's safety record.
Monaco said the company (TSX:ENB) invested about $400 million last year alone in the safety of its vast pipeline network and has doubled the number of staff dedicated to leak detection and pipeline control systems over the last two years.
"This is not new, but rather part of an ongoing effort to be the best in the business," Monaco said.
Calgary-based Enbridge has faced scrutiny and criticism in recent days following a spill last week from its Line 14 pipeline running through Grand Marsh, Wisc., dumped roughly 1,200 barrels oil into a field that is part of the pipeline right-of-way.
The company was also rapped by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board in its report into a 2010 spill into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan.
The U.S. report prompted the National Energy Board in Canada to announce it will increase safety audits on the company's Canadian operations in the coming months.
Last month, the B.C. government said it could only support the pipeline project if it met five criteria, including a greater portion of the economic benefits and assurances that the "best" responses will be available for potential spills.