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NEB Blocks Aboriginal Attempt to Hinder Mackenzie Project

Aboriginal politics, formerly a lethal snare in northern Canada, will not be allowed to trip up the Mackenzie Gas Project, a ruling by the National Energy Board has confirmed.

In brief reasons for a Christmas season decision not to hear a formal protest motion filed by the northern Dene Tha' First Nation, the NEB said no changes need to be made to the regulatory apparatus for the Arctic production and pipeline case.

The federal board especially does not have to open a Canadian can of worms by asserting jurisdiction over the southern-most leg in the pipeline route in northern Alberta, the NEB said. The last stretch will be the responsibility of TransCanada PipeLines, applying for approval from the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board in the normal way for construction entirely within the province's boundaries.

The Dene Tha' wanted the NEB to take jurisdiction over the last 100 kilometers (60 miles) of the MGP as just the first step in an overhaul of the regulatory process guaranteed to be hotly contested by federal and provincial authorities. The aboriginal group also sought special, national recognition of effects of the gas project on their treaty lands and wider traditional territory in the southern Northwest Territories, northwestern Alberta and northeastern British Columbia.

"Jurisdictional issues can be complex," the NEB said "It would be prudent to wait until the facts relating to the application for the connecting facilities are complete before determining jurisdiction over them."

Environmental and socio-economic aspects of the hookup to the TransCanada-Nova system will be covered by a wide-ranging review of matters of northern and national interest in the total package before a joint review panel of other federal, Northwest Territories and aboriginal agencies, the NEB said. "There is no project-splitting to limit the effectiveness of the environmental and socio-economic assessment."

The NEB decision followed a refusal by agencies represented on the joint review panel to bow to critics' demands for a major widening of the environmental and socio-economic side of the case. Environmental critics such as the Sierra Club of Canada continue to urge inquiries into issues such as the effects on greenhouse-gas emissions of "induced" projects such as oilsands plants expected to use some of the new arctic production. But rather than incorporate such demands into the review's mandate, panel decisions on the "terms of reference" left such critics to make their case as interveners competing for attention against others that favor the project including three of four territorial aboriginal communities on the pipeline route.

The message of such rulings, as refusals to divert the regulatory process into reprises of unresolved Canadian constitutional and environmental dilemmas, is that times have changed since resistance froze the first incarnation of the arctic gas project in the 1970s, say veterans of the northern and regulatory scenes.

The dozen agencies involved in reviewing the C$7-billion (US$5.6-billion) MGP appear to be determined to make the tangled northern regulatory scene as efficient as possible, observed former NEB chairman Roland Priddle. A combination of improved gas markets and a project structure that anchors the MGP in producer demand for service makes the economic side of the proposal far stronger than its 1970s incarnation, Priddle added.

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