OTTAWA (Reuters) - A top Canadian cabinet minister has blasted Enbridge Inc's environmental record, casting more doubt on whether the company will be able to build a controversial pipeline from Alberta's oil sands to the Pacific Coast.
Heritage Minister James Moore's comments - the first attack by any top Canadian government official on Enbridge - also reveal that a rare split has opened up inside the cabinet over the proposed C$6 billion ($6 billion) Northern Gateway project, which the Conservative government backs strongly.
Moore is the senior political minister for British Columbia, the province where the pipeline would end. His remarks come at a bad time for Enbridge, which is under heavy pressure in the United States over leaks from its existing network there.
The 1,177 km (731 mile) Northern Gateway would take 525,000 barrels a day of crude from the Alberta tar sands across the Rocky Mountains to Kitimat on the British Columbia coast for export to China and other energy-hungry Asian nations.
"This project will not survive public scrutiny unless Enbridge takes far more seriously their obligation to engage the public and to answer those very legitimate questions about the way in which they've operated their business in the very recent past," Moore told a Vancouver radio station on Wednesday.
The provincial Liberal government in British Columbia - trailing the anti-Gateway main opposition party ahead of an election next year - toughened its tone last month and vowed to block the pipeline unless Alberta handed over more royalties.
Moore compared Enbridge's record with that of Kinder Morgan, which he said had made all the right moves as it went ahead with plans to more than double the capacity of its Trans Mountain Line, which also runs from Alberta to British Columbia.
"There's a difference, I think, night and day between (Kinder Morgan) ... and Enbridge, which I think their track record is not one that I think any other company should follow if they want to do business in British Columbia," he said.
British Columbia is important for the Conservatives, who hold 21 of the province's 36 federal seats.
Moore's remarks run counter to those of Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, who is from Alberta and is one of the most influential members of the federal cabinet. Kenney last week condemned the British Columbia government's hard line on Northern Gateway.
Foreign Minister John Baird, who like Kenney is close to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, also backs Alberta's refusal to consider handing over more money.
The U.S. pipeline regulator raised pressure on Enbridge on Thursday over the latest spill on its U.S. network, demanding that it submit a plan to improve the safety of the entire 1,900 mile system before restarting a key Midwest line.
Enbridge defended its record on Friday, saying it had transported almost 12 billion barrels of crude oil with a safe delivery record better than 99.999 percent over the last decade.
"That's good, but for us, it's not good enough. We will never stop striving for 100 percent," Al Monaco, Enbridge's president, said in a statement.
The federal Conservative government this year pushed through measures making it easier for major pipelines to be built, prompting critics to protest that Ottawa was determined the Northern Gateway should go ahead no matter what.
"Anybody who's making assumptions about the ultimate goal of the federal government should understand that our goal is not to ram through the pipeline, but it's to put in place the best policies to ensure Canadian products can get to market with the consent of Canadians," Moore said.
A spokesman for Harper declined on Friday to comment directly on Moore's remarks, saying "the government's policy is for the responsible development of Canada's natural resources".
The Northern Gateway is currently being reviewed by the National Energy Board, the federal energy regulator, which on Friday confirmed that the process had to be completed by the end of 2013. One of the government's new measures sets strict timelines on reviews of major projects.
Enbridge, which long insisted the Northern Gateway would be safe as initially planned, last month announced more safety measures that would boost the total cost by up to C$500 million.
"(That) raises doubts about their sincerity and their environmental stewardship in the first place," Moore said.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Peter Galloway