The federal government's decision, announced Tuesday just before a self-imposed deadline, is contingent on Enbridge (TSX:ENB) satisfying 209 conditions set out by a federal review panel and embarking on more consultations with affected 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 planned a conference call Tuesday afternoon to discuss the decision.
Within minutes of the announcement, opponents of the project vowed that the pipeline will never see the light of day despite the nod from Ottawa.
"First Nations will immediately go to court to vigorously pursue all lawful means to stop the Enbridge project," said a statement issued by a broad coalition of B.C. aboriginal groups.
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.
"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," they said.
The decision already faces legal challenge. Several First Nations and environmental groups have filed applications with the Federal Court for judicial review of the federal panel report recommending approval.
The Gitxaala and Coastal First Nations have already said they are preparing broader lawsuits against the federal government, the company or both over aboriginal rights.
The Sierra Club B.C. called the decision a "slap in the face" for British Columbians.
"But ultimately, it changes nothing: the Enbridge pipeline will not get built," said spokeswoman Caitlyn Vernon.
Barry Robinson, a staff lawyer for the group Ecojustice, said: "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.
The project was always going to be controversial.
The proposal is for a 1,200-kilometre pipeline that 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 would 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 the heavy oil 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.
A 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.
But pressure will now mount on the B.C. government, which officially opposed the project at federal review hearings.
Premier Christy Clark set out five conditions for B.C.'s support — including strict environmental protection, adequate consultations with First Nations and a "fair share" of the benefits for B.C. — and on Tuesday she repeated her contention that those conditions have yet to be met.
Her environment minister, Mary Polak, said Northern Gateway has passed only the first condition: that the project pass federal environmental review.
"Our position on the Northern Gateway pipeline remains unchanged," Polak told reporters on a conference call.
"Northern Gateway still has a lot of work to do to meet British Columbia's five conditions."
Enbridge must also apply for regulatory permits and authorizations from federal and provincial governments, and Rickford noted that many of the 209 conditions listed by the National Energy Board call for additional consultations with First Nations.
"The proponent clearly has more work to do in order to fulfil the public commitment it has made to engage with Aboriginal groups and local communities along the route," said Rickford.
The project, which would move an estimated 525,000 barrels of petroleum products each day, still faces political and legal challenges from various fronts in B.C., where opposition to the project has grown as the decision drew near.
"There are going to very substantial delays on actually moving on this project," Werner Antweiler, who teaches at the University of British Columbia's business school, said Tuesday before the announcement.
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