(Reuters) - The Canadian government approved the construction of Enbridge Inc's C$7.9 billion ($7.22 billion) Northern Gateway pipeline on Tuesday, setting the stage for a flurry of lawsuits from opponents who object to the project on environmental grounds.
The approval of the proposed pipeline, which would link Alberta's oil sands with a Pacific port, is contingent on Enbridge meeting more than 200 conditions set out by a regulatory panel.
Those conditions include conducting more consultations with aboriginals living along the route, which will cross hundreds of kilometers of wilderness and mountain ranges, mostly in the Pacific province of British Columbia.
"After carefully reviewing the report, the government accepts the independent panel's recommendation to impose 209 conditions on Northern Gateway Pipelines' proposal," Canada's Natural Resources minister Greg Rickford said in a statement. "Today constitutes another step in the process."
Aboriginal and environmental groups were quick to react to the decision, promising to bury the project in lawsuits and take direct action in the form of protests and blockades if needed.
“This pipeline will never be built,” Nikki Skuce, senior energy campaigner for environmental group ForestEthics, said in a statement. “Instead of seeing shovels in the ground, we’ll be seeing action in the courts, at the B.C. legislature, on the land and at the ballot box in 2015.”
Indeed, Thomas Mulcair, head of the official opposition New Democratic Party, said he would immediately set the decision aside if elected prime minister in October 2015.
"This is clearly already an election issue in British Columbia," he said. Northern Gateway would carry diluted bitumen extracted from Alberta's oil sands some 1,177 kilometers (731 miles) to the deepwater port in Kitimat in northwest British Columbia, where it would be loaded on supertankers and shipped to Asia.
In December, a federally appointed review panel urged the government to approve the 525,000 barrel-per-day project after concluding that it would pose little risk to the environment if the company complied with the conditions it spelled out.
Reporting by Julie Gordon in Vancouver, Randall Palmer in Ottawa and Scott Haggett in Calgary; Editing by Frank McGurty and Grant McCool