Analysis: Enbridge's Gateway pipeline still in legal swamp

Sun Apr 8, 2012 10:11pm EDT
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By Jeffrey Jones

CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - A Canadian government attempt to speed up construction of Enbridge Inc's Northern Gateway oil pipeline to the West Coast is unlikely to prevent a flood of court challenges that could still delay the multibillion-dollar project.

In its budget last month the Conservative government said it will force time limits on regulators reviewing the pipeline plan. But aboriginal law experts say that won't stop legal actions against the C$5.5 billion ($5.5 billion) project, which is designed to open a lucrative new export route to the Pacific for surging production from the Alberta oil sands.

They say court precedents relating to rights and title to native lands in British Columbia open the government and Enbridge, a major Canadian pipeline and energy company, to untold actions even if the regulatory body reviewing the proposal approves the controversial project.

Legal action has already begun and sources say this is likely just the first of a raft of actions as the oil industry and government face opposition from several aboriginal groups.

"You've got aboriginal people in British Columbia who will bear all the risks of this, who don't want to see so-called economic benefits on the back of their culture," said Louise Mandell, a Vancouver-based lawyer who has argued numerous cases on behalf of native groups, including a landmark one in 1997 known as Delgamuukw that will have implications for the project.

"They won't allow it, so there will be challenges in whichever direction the legal arguments take it, including legislated solutions."

Many native groups say said they fear that construction and operation of the pipeline will threaten traditional ways of life and leave their territories and coastal waters at risk of oil spills. Enbridge has said risks of spills are low as it will use state-of-the-art technology and materials to build the line.

Much of the risk for Enbridge stems from the lack of treaties in British Columbia between most native bands, known as first nations, and the government, despite years of talks.   Continued...

Hunter Johnson has molasses poured on her while protesting against the building of oil pipelines in B.C at the Vancouver Art Gallery in Vancouver, British Columbia March 26, 2012. REUTERS/Ben Nelms