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Not so fast, Mr. Harper

Prime Minister Harper seems to think that the final verdict on the proposed Northern Gateway project lies with the federal cabinet. Is he right?

Jan 19, 2012

by Max Fawcett

With the Obama administration officially rejecting the Republican Party’s attempt to force an approval of the Keystone XL pipeline project, it’s safe to assume that Stephen Harper’s government will be pursuing the  Northern Gateway project with an even greater sense of urgency. But contrary to what the Prime Minister appeared to suggest in an interview on Monday with the CBC, Harper and his cabinet will not get the final say on whether the project gets the green light.

As Postmedia’s Peter O’Neil wrote in a piece yesterday, Harper appeared to suggest that the final verdict belonged to him when asked if his government would accept a negative decision from the NEB. “Well, obviously, we’ll always take a look at the recommendation. We take the recommendations of environmental reviews very seriously,” Harper said. “And this government has in the past changed projects or even stopped projects if reviews were not favourable, or (the government) indicated that changes had to be made. So we’ll take a close look at what the conclusions are.”

The problem, as O’Neil pointed out, is that the NEB isn’t issuing a recommendation – it’s issuing a verdict. And while the government has the capacity to overturn an affirmative decision, it can’t reverse a negative one. University of Calgary law professor Nigel Bankes emphasized that negative decisions are very rare, but if one comes he said that it represents the “end of the line” unless the government decides to introduce new legislation.

If you’re holding a bet in the “what will scuttle the Northern Gateway” pool, the odds still heavily favour a court challenge from one of the affected aboriginal groups along the proposed line. But a negative verdict from the NEB is still a valid option, despite what the Prime Minister seems to think.




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