VANCOUVER - It doesn't have to be either-or when it comes to protecting Canada's wilderness and generating economic prosperity from oil export projects, says the federal natural resources minister.
Joe Oliver held a news conference at the Port of Vancouver on Friday to reassure the public about the government's pipeline and marine safety standards in the midst of furor over the Enbridge (TXS:ENB) Northern Gateway project.
Environmental hearings were underway at the same time in Edmonton, where lawyers for the British Columbia government were grilling a panel of company spokespeople about their financial plan in the event of an oil spill.
Standing in front of sparkling waters under a hot sun, Oliver said there is no contradiction in his government's fundamental belief that oil can be transported across land and sea for export safely.
He said he's seen B.C.'s beautiful landscapes and spoken to citizens and politicians about the $6 billion pipeline, which would originate at the Alberta oil sands and cut across pristine backcountry before terminating at a port on the coast.
"I understand what their concern is," he told reporters as floatplanes landed behind him on the Burrard Inlet. "They want to make sure that any pipeline that proceeds will be safe for the environment and safe for the people in this province, and that is our commitment as well."
Enbridge estimates the pipeline would boost Canada's GDP by about $9 billion a year.
B.C. Premier Christy Clark has said her government will not consider the project until five pre-conditions are met, because it appears the province would take on all the risk and get little reward for playing host to the infrastructure.
The majority of B.C.-based First Nations groups and a slew of environmental advocates go further in their opposition, with some aboriginals threatening to do whatever it takes to stop construction, including physical blockades.
Opponents argue spills are inevitable and one leak could cause an environmental catastrophe.
The pipeline would carry raw bitumen to tankers on the northwest coast that would have to navigate narrow channels on their journey to Asian importers.
Lesser known, but causing similar tension, is the proposal for expansion of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain Pipeline, which runs from Alberta to Vancouver. It would generate an increase in the size and number of tankers passing through the city's harbour.
"I've made a commitment that we will have world-class safety measures in place before anything proceeds," Oliver said, after spending almost 20 minutes providing a list of safety measures in place.
"We believe you have to have a balanced approach, we will protect the environment and proceed with resource development in a socially and environmentally responsible way."
A joint review panel for the Environmental Assessment Authority and National Energy Board is examining the potential risks of the project.
Oliver avoided directly answering a question as to whether Ottawa would ram through approval should the project get the thumbs down, but acknowledged the outcome is rarely negative.
He said the government would certainly follow any conditions the panel might recommend in order to give the project the green light.
Ottawa's tone about the project has tempered since the July release of an embarrassing report describing Enbridge's bungled response to a spill into Michigan's Kalamazoo River in July 2010. Millions of litres of oil poured into the environment, affecting more than 50 kilometres of waterways and wetlands.
The Conservative government had been somewhat unabashed in its support, but the Prime Minister has since said the decision will be made through independent evaluations conducted by scientists.
Oliver's comments came just after Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney urged Canada to invest heavily in new energy infrastructure, saying higher commodity prices are "unambiguously good" for the country.
Some of the pipeline safety measures listed by Oliver include:
— Increasing the number of oil and gas inspections by 50 per cent annually.
— Doubling the number of annual audits.
— Sanctions by the NEB, such as revocation of licence to operate and the power to fine for certain violations.
— Companies are liable for clean-up costs in the event of a spill.