OTTAWA - Conservatives are defending their government's approval of the contested Northern Gateway pipeline as based on science and evidence — while noting the project may never be built.
Government MPs and ministers were conspicuously absent late Tuesday when the approval was announced in a bureaucratic news release — evidence, NDP and Liberal critics crowed, that they feared the coming backlash.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford struck a dispassionate tone on the project, emphasizing it had gone through a rigorous review process that includes 209 conditions.
"The fact of the matter is that the government is acting on the advice of an independent scientific panel that thoroughly reviewed these matters," Harper said during question period.
"The government has applied the conditions demanded by that panel. It is now up to the proponent to assure the regulator going forward that it will indeed comply with those conditions."
Conservatives also point out that a federal panel recently rejected the New Prosperity mine project in B.C., a decision that wasn't similarly picked apart by the opposition.
But the science around the National Energy Board's joint review panel has been criticized by outside voices, and rejected outright by the opposition who say it was politicized and shaped by the Conservatives.
Earlier this month, 300 scientists and scholars signed an open letter urging Harper to reject the review panel's "flawed" findings, including its failure to consider the impact of greenhouse-gas emissions from Alberta's oilsands.
"Unless the public has a process in which it can have confidence, none of these projects can move forward," said NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, who has warned he would set aside the decision should his party form government.
"And that's what we've said about Northern Gateway since day one. The public simply could not have confidence in the process."
Despite the Conservative cabinet's decision to approve the project with the 209 conditions, there are still enormous hurdles to overcome — including gaining the support of dozens of aboriginal communities.
The general sense of uncertainty around Northern Gateway could account for the marked lack of enthusiasm the Conservatives are now showing for the project.
"British Columbians want jobs, they want growth, they want to show that we're protecting our environment and protecting our fisheries," said B.C. Conservative MP John Weston.
"Those are the things British Columbians are concerned about and the decision upholds those 209 conditions. It's a very tough job to complete any pipeline under those conditions."
Chris McCluskey, a spokesman for Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford, noted on Twitter that the approval was conditional, calling the government's response a "maybe."
Other MPs said they don't fear being punished during the next federal election, noting that not everyone in B.C. is opposed to the pipeline.
"Some are, some aren't," said MP Mark Warawa.
"B.C. is a natural resource-rich province, and that's how we pay for education, health care — all of our social services are paid for by our natural resources."
That spin on the debate — that the Conservatives are the party in favour of natural-resource development and job creation — played itself out during question period.
"We are all familiar with the long history of the deep hostility of the former Trudeau government to everything in the western energy industry," Harper said, a reference to former prime minister Pierre Trudeau's unpopular National Energy Program.
And on Mulcair: "Once again, we are well aware of the NDP's opposition to all resource development and its view that all resource development is a disease on the economy."
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