CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has appointed a British Columbia lawyer to gather views of native groups across the Western province on energy development as the industry struggles to gain acceptance of multibillion-dollar pipelines that would vastly increase oil exports.
However, Harper's new representative for West Coast energy infrastructure, Doug Eyford, insisted on Tuesday his role will not be to cajole holdouts into supporting contentious projects.
Aboriginal opposition to such proposals as Enbridge Inc's C$6 billion ($5.8 billion) Northern Gateway pipeline has been a major stumbling block to the Harper Conservatives' aim of shipping large volumes of oil sands-derived crude to the Pacific Coast to be exported to Asia as a way to increase turns.
Eyford is a veteran of federal negotiations with Indian groups, known in Canada as First Nations, on self-government. Over the next three months, he will meet with communities affected by proposed pipelines, liquefied natural gas plants and marine terminals.
Eyford will issue a draft report to Harper on June 28 and the final document on November 29, Joe Oliver, Canada's natural resources minister, said in a speech in Terrace, British Columbia.
His appointment comes a day after Ottawa said it planned a series of measures aimed at improving tanker safety as proposed pipeline projects point to a major increase in coastal traffic.
Eyford said he has not been asked to advocate on behalf of the government or the energy industry in favor of specific industrial developments.
"My role and responsibility is to provide an accurate and complete report to the prime minister on what I'm told by the people who I interact and engage with as part of my responsibilities," he said.
The federal government has a constitutional requirement to consult with and accommodate native communities when developments will affect their lands, and some aboriginal leaders have suggested their rights and title to lands may amount to veto power.
This has presented legal risks to proponents of Northern Gateway, which would ship 525,000 barrels a day of Alberta oil to the coastal port of Kitimat, British Columbia. Regulators are due to decide whether to approve the project by the end of this year following hearings that began at the beginning of 2012.
Oliver said native people have much to contribute to natural resource development, as they bring traditional knowledge that offers better understanding of environmental impacts and remediation measures. He pointed out that the industry supports 32,000 aboriginal jobs in Canada.
Still, some groups, such as the Coastal First Nations and Yinka Dene Alliance, are staunchly opposed to oil pipelines, saying they fear the risks of oil spills as well as potential loss of traditional ways.
Art Sterritt, executive director of Coastal First Nations, an alliance of nine groups, said it appears the federal government realized it needed someone on the ground with experience in native rights, title and consultation, though it is starting the process very late.
"We don't have a lot of optimism around that, but knowing Mr. Eyford, we think that he's a person who is going to be candid with the prime minister," Sterritt told Reuters. "We're happy that he's not reporting at a lower level. We think this needs to be dealt with at the highest level."
He stressed that the appointment will not lead his people to drop their opposition to the Northern Gateway project.
British Columbia's burgeoning LNG industry appears to have wider support among native groups, some of which are equity partners in proposed multibillion-dollar projects.
Eyford said he did not know if his final report will be made public.
Editing by Phil Berlowitz and Gunna Dickson