Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline twinning now has the endorsement of the National Energy Board, which has recommended the federal government approve the project subject to a long list of conditions.
The tentative green light from regulators was not unexpected – the NEB has never rejected a pipeline proposal outright.
The NEB review panel found the $6.8-billion project is in the national interest, unlikely to cause significant adverse environmental effects, and its benefits outweigh any "residual burdens."
The report did flag significant adverse effects from increased tanker traffic, causing impacts to southern resident killer whales, but it notes marine shipping is projected to increase with or without the pipeline, and tankers would be a small fraction of that.
Wider access to world markets for Canadian oil, government revenues, and thousands of construction jobs were among the benefits listed.
It found there is a very low probability of a serious spill from the pipeline, a tanker, a tank terminal or pump stations, and that risk is acceptable.
The federal government must now meet a December deadline to approve or reject the project.
Meanwhile, following an election commitment by the federal Liberals to revamp and restore trust in the flawed pipeline review process, a three-member panel will conduct new consultations with communities and first nations and advise cabinet. The panel consists of former Tsawwassen First Nation Chief Kim Baird, former Yukon premier Tony Penikett and University of Winnipeg president Annette Trimbee.
Even if Ottawa gives final approval, big hurdles remain.
During NEB hearings, the province said it could not yet support the pipeline because its conditions for new heavy oil pipelines have not been met.
"We still have a long way to go with respect to marine spill preparedness and response," B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak said Thursday, adding there's also more work to be done on land spill response, and significant work required to resolve first nations concerns and ensure there are net benefits for B.C.
Even if B.C. comes on board – and there has been speculation a deal could involve Alberta agreeing to buy B.C. electricity – the project still faces aboriginal court challenges, a plan by environmentalists to force a referendum using B.C.'s initiative legislation, and the threat of civil disobedience during construction.
The second pipeline would nearly triple Trans Mountain's capacity to 890,000 barrels per day, resulting in a seven-fold increase in tankers plying Vancouver harbour.
While portions of the 1,150-kilometre pipeline route from Alberta to the terminal in Burnaby closely follows the existing pipeline built in 1953, it would follow a largely new route through the Lower Mainland.
That means traversing farmland and neighbourhoods, and in some cases cutting through parks, such as Surrey Bend Regional Park and Bridal Veils Provincial Park near Chilliwack.
Various cities and regional districts lodged their objections at NEB hearings on the project, while other prominent interveners pulled out of the process last summer, denouncing it as rigged in favour of Kinder Morgan.
The NEB's recommendation to approve comes with 157 conditions, up from 145 draft conditions previously circulated.
Kinder Morgan would be required to update earthquake analyses, including studies of seismic faults and liquefaction-prone areas.
Another condition requires it to update risk assessments at the Burnaby and Sumas terminals to quantify the risk of a "boil over" fire, flash fires or vapour cloud explosions, as well as any potential "domino effect" from a failure at one storage tank compromising others.
Kinder Morgan must also assess firefighting resources that would respond to its Burnaby terminal or tank farm and consult with affected municipalities.
The NEB is also requiring Trans Mountain to track its greenhouse gas emissions related to construction and operation, and develop a plan to offset the construction emissions.
The review did not consider the downstream effect on climate change from burning oil overseas.
The report also concedes there will be significant increased greenhouse gas emissions from tanker traffic, which can't be offset.
Kinder Morgan would have until Sept. 30, 2021 to begin construction of the pipeline, after which certificates expire. The company aims to start construction in 2017 and finish it by late 2019.
B.C. environmental groups said the project has no social licence and predict it will never be built.
"A raft of court cases is already underway, and citizens have already been arrested in protest at the project," said Christianne Wilhelmson of the Georgia Strait Alliance. "Communities clearly do not grant permission to Kinder Morgan, so permits cannot be granted by the government."
Anti-pipeline activist John Vissers, of the group Pipe Up, said the project will contribute to global warming by increasing the burning of fossil fuels. He also expressed concern about the age of the original pipe.
"Sixty-year-old infrastructure should be replaced before we allow expansion of that industry," Vissers said.
– with files from Tyler Olsen
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