Environmental groups ask court to block feds from approving Northern Gateway

VANCOUVER – The Northern Gateway pipeline project is headed to court, after several environmental groups and at least two First Nations filed lawsuits in the Federal Court of Appeal.

Four separate applications were filed seeking judicial review of a federal review panel decision recommending approval of the project. And one of those asks for a court order barring the federal cabinet from giving the project final approval until the review is complete.

The groups say the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency panel made legal errors.

“We’re profoundly disappointed by the conclusions in the report and the way in which they reached those conclusions, which has left us with no option but to feel that we need to take this before the courts,” said Karen Campbell, a staff lawyer for Ecojustice.

The panel report released last month recommended approval of the 1,200-kilometre pipeline, with 209 conditions.

At least four applications were filed Friday in Vancouver, one by the Haisla Nation, one by the Gitxaala, another by the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria on behalf of B.C. Nature and one by Ecojustice, on behalf of Forest Ethics Advocacy, Living Oceans Society and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

The lawsuits claim the joint review panel erred by considering the economic benefits of the project to the Alberta oilsands, but ignoring the adverse effects of the development.

They also said the panel made its decision despite gaps in the evidence, including without a federal study of diluted bitumen and how it behaves in water, adding that was quietly released by Environment Canada after the panel wrapped up hearings.

The panel also didn’t get to consider a federal recovery strategy for humpback whales published by Environment Canada after the hearings ended — five years after it was due under the federal Species At Risk Act — nor did it have all the necessary information on the geohazards along the pipeline route, Ecojustice said.

“All relevant information that should have been considered during the review hearings,” the group said in a statement.

Ivan Giesbrecht, spokesman for Northern Gateway Pipelines, said the lawsuits — which name the company along with the Attorney General of Canada, the National Energy Board and the federal environment minister — did not come as a surprise.

But the company believes the applications are premature and should wait until a final decision is reached.

“At this stage, Northern Gateway does not believe this will necessarily delay the review by the federal government of the (Joint Review Panel’s) report,” Giesbrecht said in an email.

He said the company is confident in the integrity of the panel and report, which was based on science and evidence presented at the “most thorough and comprehensive proceeding in Canadian history.”

“Its recommendations and conditions are based on science and the input of experts,” Giesbrecht said.

The Gitxaala Nation argues the panel did not properly consider aboriginal rights and title and did not properly weigh the public interest.

“Gitxaala were given the opportunity to speak, but were not heard,” Rosanne Kyle, their lawyer, said in a statement.

The Haisla application argues the panel didn’t properly consider the impact on Haisla heritage or assess the adequacy of Crown consultations with First Nations.

“There are a number of flaws,” said Nikki Skuce, of Forest Ethics.

“I don’t think the voices of British Columbians were heard … and I don’t think enough consideration was given to First Nations and communities that live along, and would be impacted by, the pipeline.

“I don’t know what hearings those three panellists were in, because the ones that I was in there were people passionately speaking out against this project at every turn.”

The federal cabinet has 180 days from the time it received the report, released in December, to make a final decision.

Note to readers: This is a corrected version. A previous version said approval was expected in the spring.