A federal review panel says the proposed $7.9-bilion Northern Gateway pipeline project should go ahead if more than 200 conditions are met.

A joint National Energy Board review panel released its report into the proposed project Thursday afternoon, after months of public hearings in which it heard submissions from more than 1,450 participants in 21 communities.

The 429-page report included some 209 conditions that Calgary-based Enbridge must meet in order to build the pipeline.

The panel concluded that the project will serve the public interest if it is built and operated “in compliance with the conditions” set out in its report. The report concludes that the project “would bring significant local, regional and national economic and social benefits.”

“After weighing all of the oral and written evidence, the panel found that Canada and Canadians would be better off with the Enbridge Northern Gateway project than without it,” the panel said in a statement.

The final decision to greenlight the project rests with the federal government -- cabinet has 180 days to decide whether to give it final approval.

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said in a statement Thursday that the report “represents a rigorous, open and comprehensive science-based assessment.

“Now that we have received the report, we will thoroughly review it, consult with affected Aboriginal groups and then make our decision. We also encourage everyone with an interest to take the time and review the report.”

Oliver concluded that “no project will be approved unless it is safe for Canadians and safe for the environment.”

The nearly 1,200-kilometre pipeline would carry Alberta oil from Bruderheim, Alta., to a port in Kitimat in northern B.C., where it can be loaded onto tankers and shipped to markets in Asia.

The pipeline would carry 525,000 barrels of oil a day from Alberta to B.C. The report estimated the project’s cost at $7.9 billion, up from $6.5 billion.

Environmental groups and many First Nations communities oppose the project over fears that tankers in northern B.C.’s waterways will increase the risk of devastating spills.

But the financial stakes are high, as revenue from the project could mean billions for the Alberta and B.C. governments, as well as for project owner Enbridge.

Alberta Energy Minister Diana McQueen said in a statement that getting Alberta’s energy products to new markets will be a huge financial windfall for the province, which will result in job creation and boost funding for programs such as education and health care.

McQueen said the panel’s decision “is an important step” toward establishing Canada “as a true global energy superpower.”

B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak noted Thursday that her government has set five conditions for the project, and the report “means they are part-way to getting the first condition that we set,” which was that the project passes a federal environmental assessment.

However, the federal government is “a long way from meeting” the other conditions, which include establishing spill prevention mechanisms both on land and on water, consultation with First Nations communities and that B.C. receive an economic benefit from the project.

Alberta and B.C. recently reached an agreement on the five conditions.

Janet Holder, leader of the Northern Gateway project for Enbridge, said Thursday her team “will work to meet” the panel’s conditions, as well as B.C.’s five conditions.

“Northern Gateway will be designed to protect B.C.’s unique natural environment with world-class spill prevention, response and recovery. And it will be a partnership with Aboriginal groups and communities,” Holder said, saying the team has already signed 26 partnership agreements.

“We look forward to sharing our progress with British Columbians, openly and transparently. “

'No such thing as spill-proof pipeline'

The report concludes that the environmental impacts that would result from the construction and operation of the pipeline can be “effectively mitigated and that continued monitoring, scientific research and adaptive management could further reduce adverse effects.”

And the panel noted that a large oil spill would have “significant” environmental, societal and economic consequences.

But the panel says it is assured by the pipeline’s design, which minimizes the possibility of a spill. The panel concludes that the project’s safety systems reduce the risk of potential environmental impacts from accidents to “very low.”

In a statement, Environmental Defence said it is “deeply disappointed” in the panel’s decision.

“There is no such thing as a spill-proof pipeline,” the group said in a statement. “All it would take is one spill to irreversibly damage any of the 800 streams and rivers, dozens of communities, traditional territories of First Nations, and the irreplaceable Great Bear Rainforest. The pipeline proposal is a recipe for ecological and social disaster and that is why it should not be built.”

Earlier Thursday, former Toronto mayor David Miller, now CEO of World Wildlife Fund Canada, said a pipeline doesn’t belong in the proposed route in northern B.C.

Miller said the pipeline leads to “far too much risk” of spills from the pipeline or the tankers.

“We’re very concerned about the risk of oil spills, particularly from tankers, which will go through some of the world’s most dangerous waters,” Miller told CTV News Channel on Thursday.

“And we know what happens when a tanker spill occurs, because the Exxon-Valdez spill was not too far from here. And wildlife will be decimated for a very long time, including all of the local jobs that depend on fishing.”

Miller said if the project gets the go-ahead, “people will continue to speak up because it really is the wrong place for this kind of development.”

The panel’s conditions include:

  • Develop a Marine Mammal Protection Plan.
  • Prepare a caribou habitat restoration plan.
  • Develop a training and education monitoring plan.
  • Prepare an enhanced marine spill trajectory and fate modelling.
  • Develop a research program on the behaviour and cleanup of heavy oils.
  • Conduct pre-operations emergency response exercises and develop an emergency preparedness and response exercise and training program.

NEB communications officer Sarah Kiley said the federal government can do one of three things: accept or reject the panel’s recommendations, or ask the NEB to reconsider any of the conditions included in the report.

In response, the NEB can reject the request outright, modify the conditions the government has flagged or replace the conditions in question altogether.

While First Nations groups made submissions to the panel’s hearings, a number of First Nations groups declined to appear at any of the hearings and have vowed to fight the project in the courts if it gets the go-ahead.

"We're treated as a stakeholder in this process," Carrie Henchitt, a lawyer for the Heiltsuk Nation, said earlier this year. "We are not just stakeholders. We have specific rights very different from other interest groups."

But business groups note that revenue from the project will fund social programs and create jobs in the region.

"The reality is whether you support this particular project or not, that culture is now building a bit of a reputation and we're going to suffer the consequences in terms of our quality of life, our ability to fund education and health care if we don't start to figure out how to get things done," Greg D’Avignon, president of the B.C. Business Council, told The Canadian Press before the report’s release.

"We like the benefits of oil but we don't want the ability to actually extract it, move it, sell it into the marketplace and create jobs from it.”

In addition to environmental and First Nations groups, the federal NDP also strongly opposes Northern Gateway over concerns about B.C.’s waterways.

On Wednesday, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair told reporters during a year-end press conference that the project should never have been sent to a review panel.

He said he recognizes that energy development is a boon to Canada’s economy and there is a need to get energy products to market. But he says an east-west pipeline is a better option, if it passes a strict environmental review.

On CTV’s Power Play Wednesday, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said growth in his city and across Alberta “is to the point where we’ve reached critical mass.” The tool for coping with that growth, he said, is determining the best ways to get Canadian energy to overseas markets.

“We need access for Canadian energy to world markets. That access has to be what I call a Canadian version of Obama’s ‘all of the above’ strategy. We need access to the Pacific, access to the Gulf Coast, access to the Atlantic, and certainly that doesn’t mean that the Northern Gateway, for example, is the right answer to get to the Pacific Ocean,” Nenshi told Power Play.

“We have to start with a policy imperative for all of Canada: that Canadian energy needs to be able to get those Asian markets to ensure the future of prosperity of the whole country. And it’s time for us to set aside the petty politics and decide how we can do that.”