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Canadian Senate passes major project assessment bill with heavy amendments

CALGARY, Alberta/ OTTAWA June 7 (Reuters) - The Canadian Senate has approved legislation aimed at changing the way major projects such as oil pipelines are assessed, with more than 180 amendments that were welcomed by the government of Canada’s main crude-producing province Alberta.

After the vote late on Thursday Bill C-69 will now go back to the House of Commons where Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government must decide which amendments it will accept.

The federal government introduced the bill to fulfil a 2015 election pledge to streamline and restore trust in the environmental approval process for major projects.

The legislation in its original form was fiercely opposed by the oil industry and the Alberta government. Critics said it would deter investment in the sector by creating uncertainty and giving too much power to federal ministers to veto projects.

Canada holds the world’s third-largest crude reserves but has faced years of delay in getting new export pipelines like TC Energy’s Keystone XL built, leading to crude becoming bottlenecked in Alberta and billions of dollars in foreign investment retreating from the energy sector.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney welcomed the Senate’s decision to pass the bill with the unusually high number of amendments.

“While we believe the Senate’s revised version of Bill C-69 is still problematic, we believe that it is a very significant improvement, and therefore urge the Government of Canada to allow the bill to proceed to royal assent as amended.”

Amendments include removing the power of the federal environment minister to veto a project and altering how the effect of climate change is considered in the regulatory process.

Many of the amendments were recommended by the oil and gas industry, and environmental groups have previously railed against unelected senators having such an impact on the bill.

“We are carefully considering the Senate’s proposed amendments and thank them for their work. Our government is open to amendments that will strengthen and improve the Bill,” Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna said in a statement.

In a separate vote on Thursday evening senators rejected a Senate committee report that recommended scrapping a proposed moratorium on oil tankers along British Columbia’s northern coast.

Premier Kenney criticised the vote, arguing Bill C-48 unfairly targets exports of oil sands bitumen from Alberta, and said if the bill is passed into law the province will launch a constitutional challenge. (Reporting by Nia Williams and Kelsey Johnson Editing by James Dalgleish)