VANCOUVER - As a key decision looms this week on a project that will have an impact on the future of Canada's oil economy, the federal government announced details Tuesday of an additional review on the Trans Mountain pipeline.
The National Energy Board is set to announce by Friday whether it supports Kinder Morgan's proposal to triple the capacity of the pipeline, which carries diluted bitumen from the oilsands near Edmonton to Burnaby, B.C., for export.
The federal government, meanwhile, announced the appointment of a three-member panel to conduct an environmental review of the project. It will provide a report to Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr in November.
Carr said the panel cannot override the energy board's decision.
"That's not the purpose of it," he told reporters outside the House of Commons in Ottawa.
"They are to review the situation, to add further consultation — particularly with indigenous communities — to see what the NEB might have missed."
Carr said the government will make a final decision on the project before Christmas.
The company's plan would add about 980 kilometres of new pipeline and reactivate about 190 kilometres of existing pipeline. The Westridge Marine Terminal beside Burrard Inlet off Burnaby would also be expanded.
A recommendation in favour of the project from the energy board would clear a significant technical hurdle it faces before a final decision is made.
One analyst said regardless of the board decision, oil will still have to get to market, likely transported by rail.
"We all know Canada has struggled with the whole pipeline approval process," said Afolabi Ogunnaike, with global energy consultants Wood Mackenzie.
"If the pipeline is not approved, then the oil still needs to go forward."
Environmentalists have demonstrated against the Trans Mountain project, including more than 100 people who were arrested and charged with civil contempt in the fall of 2014. Most of the charges were later dropped.
Energy board spokeswoman Tara O'Donovan said its review has been based on facts and science, fulfilling a legal mandate to decide whether Kinder Morgan's application submitted in December 2013 is in the public interest.
Conditions attached to the board's recommendation could range from addressing the timing of construction to requiring the submission of emergency management plans.
The three members of the environmental panel appointed Tuesday are Kim Baird, a former chief of the Tsawwassen First Nation, Annette Trimbee, president of the University of Winnipeg, and Tony Penikett, who was premier of Yukon for two terms.
In addition to consulting indigenous groups, the panel will also review online feedback on the project. And it will look at upstream greenhouse gas emissions that are linked to the pipeline.
Carr said the government wants to restore public confidence in the process with the panel's appointment.
"We haven't had all kinds of confidence in regulatory processes in Canada on major energy projects so we want to ensure that Canadians who want to have their say, will have."
Conservatives insist Liberal delays are killing oil and gas investment and harming the Canadian economy. New Democrats are equally certain the Liberals are simply dressing up a fatally flawed environmental assessment process in order to approve the project.
Rona Ambrose, the Conservative interim leader, said in question period that the energy board assessment involved more than 1,600 participants, including 35 indigenous groups.
"When will the prime minister stop reviewing his reviews and make a decision?" Ambrose said to roars of approval from the Conservative benches.
New Democrat Kennedy Stewart, the MP for Burnaby South, which is ground-zero for Trans Mountain protests, said the Liberals are breaking an election promise to "redo the Kinder Morgan pipeline review."
He called the panel review "little more than a smokescreen."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the Commons that the Conservative attacks show why the former Harper government failed to get a major new oil pipeline to tidewater during its decade in office.
"Yet again, the members opposite are demonstrating that they did not understand why, for 10 years, they were unable to get anything done," said Trudeau.
— With files from Bruce Cheadle in Ottawa