Canada Senate passes major project assessment bill with heavy amendments

CALGARY, Alberta/ OTTAWA (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.

FILE PHOTO: Crude oil tanks at Enbridge's terminal in Sherwood Park, near Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. November 13, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Helgren

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

The federal government introduced the bill to fulfill 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 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 getting 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.”

The Canadian Energy Pipeline Association also urged the federal government to pass the bill in its amended form.

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 energy industry, and environmental groups have previously railed against unelected senators having such an impact.

Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna said the government is carefully considering the Senate’s proposed changes.

“Our government is open to amendments that will strengthen and improve the Bill,” she said in a statement.

The federal Conservative opposition said the amendments helped reduce “catastrophic damage” from the bill but they would still repeal it if elected in October’s national election.

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, a move that was criticized by Premier Kenney.

Reporting by Nia Williams and Kelsey Johnson; Editing by James Dalgleish and Diane Craft