The approval of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline will always be a political decision, according to one local group opposed to the plan.
Sea to Sands Conservation Alliance spokeswoman Sonja Ostertag said Prime Minister Stephen Harper rigged the approval process and is in no position to say he's letting scientists make the call on the controversial plan to build a pipeline from Alberta's oilsands to the port in Kitimat.
"His recent statements are a real contradiction to his actions previously in which his government, the Harper government, has gutted the environmental assessment process," she said. "There's some conflict there on what he's saying and what his actions have actually been."
Harper told reporters in Vancouver on Tuesday that his government is taking a hands-off approach and letting scientists make the call on whether or not Calgary-based Enbridge should be allowed to proceed with the $6-billion project.
"The only way that governments can handle controversial projects of this manner is to ensure that things are evaluated on an independent basis scientifically, and not simply on political criteria," Harper said, adding it's not the government's job to "pick and choose" specific projects.
The independent review is currently being conducted by the National Energy Board's Joint Review Panel. The final phase of its environmental review process is set to get underway next month.
Last week the federal government officially imposed a Dec. 31, 2013 deadline for the panel to issue its report and recommendations. On Wednesday, National Energy Board CEO Gaetan Caron posted a letter on the board's website to panel chairwoman Sheila Leggett informing her that if either he or Environment Minister Peter Kent believe the report won't done in time he can take "any measure I consider appropriate to ensure the time limit is met."
It's unlikely Caron will have to exercise those powers as Leggett wrote in a filing in June that she expects the report to be ready by late 2013.
Ostertag said any placed on the pipeline review will hinder the process.
"It seems very unreasonable to put a deadline on a review of a project of such significance," she said. "I think that it's really important that this report is done adequately and for that to be done I think we need to not have a deadline so all the information can be brought to the table."
Ostertag also pointed to changes the federal government has made to environmental regulations in recent years as proof the federal government is meddling in the process.
She said that with momentum building against the pipeline, Harper decided to temper his comments to avoid political fallout.
By saying they're letting scientists make the final decision, the Conservatives could be trying to give themselves political cover in a province where opposition to the pipeline is high according to public opinion polls. A survey released last week by Angus Reid had opponents outnumbering supporters of the project by a five-to-one margin, but with half of those surveyed still undecided.
Ostertag said with numbers like that, Harper would pay a price if he's seen to be forcing the project through.
"If (Harper) were to allow this project to go forward against our will, he'd really struggle to get any seats in the next election," she said. "I think he really misunderstood the situation here and misread the situation."