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VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Tuesday said diversifying energy exports was crucial for Canada but declined to say whether he backed Enbridge Inc's (ENB.TO) controversial proposal for a pipeline from Alberta to the Pacific Coast.
The C$6 billion ($6 billion) Northern Gateway, designed to run from the oil-rich tar sands of Alberta to a port in British Columbia for export to China, would help Canada reduce its reliance on the United States.
The project is under increasing attack from green groups and some aboriginal bands, who say the environmental risk is too great. British Columbia -- the province through which much of the 1,177 km (731 mile) Northern Gateway would travel -- says it will block the pipeline unless Alberta pays more in royalties to compensate for the risk of a spill.
"We think it's obviously in the vital interests of Canada ... and we think it's important that we continue to diversify exports," Harper told reporters in Vancouver when asked about the pipeline.
Critics say the right-leaning Conservative government wants to ram through the pipeline, which is currently being reviewed by Canada's federal energy regulator.
"The only way this government can handle a controversial project ... is to ensure that things are evaluated on an independent basis scientifically and not simply on political criteria," said Harper.
Last week the senior Conservative government minister for British Columbia attacked Enbridge's record, citing a series of spills along the company's U.S. pipeline network.
Reporting by Nicole Mordant, writing by David Ljunggren; Editing by Marguerita Choy