VANCOUVER - It took mere minutes for foes of the Northern Gateway pipeline to vow that the pipeline will never be built, despite the go-ahead from the federal government on Tuesday.
So with a major milestone on the path to the British Columbia coast behind it, the path ahead for the controversial project was no more certain with final government approval than it had been during months of protests.
"This project, and the federal process to approve it, violated our rights and our laws. We are uniting to defend our lands and waters of our respective territories," said a statement from a coalition of B.C. aboriginal groups.
"We will defend our territories whatever the costs may be."
The statement was signed by 28 individual bands and the three main aboriginal organizations in the province: the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, the First Nations Summit and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.
They promised court action, and more.
"Under no circumstances will this threat be allowed in our territory," said Tso'dih Peter Erickson, a hereditary chief from the Nak'azdli band near Fort St. James.
The federal government gave a conditional green light to Calgary-based Enbridge (TSX:ENB) for its controversial $7-billion project, which would link the Alberta oilsands to an export terminal on the northern B.C. coast.
The decision — delivered at the 11th-hour ahead of a legislated deadline — is contingent on the company satisfying conditions set out by a federal review panel. Those include further consultations with aboriginal communities.
"Today constitutes another step in the process," National Resources Minister Greg Rickford said in a news release. "Moving forward, the proponent must demonstrate to the independent regulator, the NEB, how it will meet the 209 conditions."
The company echoed that view.
"We know we have more work to do to re-engage with some of our First Nations communities along the proposed route and to continue our engagement with British Columbians and Canadians," said Janet Holder, an executive vice-president with Northern Gateway Pipelines. "We are committed to doing that work."
Enbridge president Al Monaco said the company will pursue dialogue with detractors but is prepared for "the eventuality" of legal challenges.
"Our advice is that this is not necessarily an endless process, as some are suggesting," he said. "There is a definitive process for Federal Court matters so I think there is a definitive timeline. This won't go on forever in terms of endless legal battles."
The decision already faces legal challenges. Several First Nations and environmental groups have filed applications with the Federal Court for judicial review of the federal panel report that recommended approval.
And the Gitxaala and Coastal First Nations have said they are preparing broader lawsuits.
The Sierra Club B.C. called the decision a "slap in the face" for British Columbians and environmentalist David Suzuki penned an open letter deriding the Conservative cabinet for "pushing an unwanted project on an unwilling public."
"We are deeply disappointed, but you need to look no further than the spate of legal challenges filed against this project to know that cabinet's approval is by no means a guarantee that this project will ever be built," said Barry Robinson, a staff lawyer for the group Ecojustice.
The project was always going to be controversial.
The 1,200-kilometre pipeline would link Alberta's Athabasca oilsands to a marine terminal on the northern edge of British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest.
To do so, it would cross the territories of more than 50 First Nations. Most of those are in B.C., where aboriginal bands never signed treaties with the Crown and where many land claims remain unresolved.
The pipeline will deliver bitumen — the heavy, molasses-like oil product from the oilsands — to oil tankers that are seven times the length of an NHL hockey rink.
Those oil tankers will then transport that product around the small islands that dot the narrow Douglas Channel and past the Haida Gwaii archipelago and a UNESCO world heritage site.
The economics are compelling. Billions of dollars in revenues and GDP are at stake and groups including the B.C. Construction Association and the Chamber of Shipping both lauded the decision.
The joint federal review panel recommended approval in December, with the 209 conditions, and the Conservative government has made it clear for some time that finding new markets for Canadian oil is an economic priority.
The B.C. government, which officially opposed the project at federal review hearings, will now face increasing pressure.
The province has set out five conditions for B.C.'s support and on Tuesday Environment Minister Mary Polak said with the final approval from Ottawa, one of those conditions has now been met.
Polak said the project will need dozens of permits from the province, which won't be issued to a project that has adverse environmental effects.
"Obviously if they are not meeting the five conditions, then they won't be able to show in a permit application that they don't have adverse environmental affects and therefore those permits wouldn't be granted."
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