OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's Conservative government has given the energy regulator about a year to deliver up-to-date guidelines for pipeline companies to improve safety and protect the environment.
Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford instructed the National Energy Board to study the issue and report its findings with new safety guidelines by next year, according to a Feb. 5 letter released to Reuters through an access to information request.
The instructions coincide with several major crude oil pipeline expansion projects proposed in Canada by companies such as Kinder Morgan, Enbridge and TransCanada Corp.
The projects face strong opposition from many landowner and environmental groups that have expressed concerns about spills, as well as impacts on climate change from expanded oil and gas development.
Rickford said the regulator could address some of these concerns through a comprehensive study of construction methods, materials, emergency plans and new technologies available in the pipeline industry.
"I firmly believe that technology can and will ensure safer pipelines and protection of the environment," Rickford wrote in the letter, addressed to the board's chairman, Peter Watson. "I also believe that guidance from the NEB ... will contribute towards achieving these important goals."
The Conservatives have promoted expansion of the oil and gas industry, pledging to make the country an "energy superpower" through new infrastructure and policies that increase access to global markets for Canada's exports.
In an interview, Guy Caron, the natural resources critic for the official opposition New Democrats, accused the government of pursuing that goal by weakening environmental laws and safety rules in recent years, making it more difficult for the regulator to do its job.
An internal memo sent last December to Rickford from his deputy minister, also released through access to information legislation, noted that the new study would promote improvements that are not covered by proposed pipeline safety legislation under review by Canadian lawmakers.
Rickford asked the regulator in his letter to consult with academic and industry experts in its research, and report its findings by March 31, 2016. He also said the board would get no additional funding to do this work since it is already part of its mandate.
A spokesman for a Canadian pipeline industry association said it is well positioned to provide meaningful input for the study.
Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson; Editing by David Gregorio