The federal government is not, nor ever has been, an advocate for the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline according to Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver.
Speaking on Wednesday at a liquefied natural gas summit hosted by the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, Oliver said it's not his job to support one type of resource project over another.
"I'm not here to promote an individual project and in fact I've never promoted that specific project because it hasn't had its regulatory review completed," he told the media when asked about Northern Gateway.
The controversial heavy oil pipeline aims to connect northern Alberta with an export facility in Kitimat so that Canadian diluted bitumen can be sold to Asian buyers. First Nations and environmental groups have raised concerns about the safety of the pipeline and associated tanker traffic it will generate.
The National Energy Board is conducting an environmental assessment of the $6.5 billion project and is expected to release its recommendation by the end of the year.
Skeena Bulkely-Valley MP Nathan Cullen laughed out loud when told of Oliver's remarks. The NDP house leader said from his vantage point the Conservative government have been active lobbyists for Northern Gateway.
"They brought Enbridge with them to China and they made full commitments to the Chinese government, the Communist government of China that this is going to happen," Cullen said. "They've bullied and yelled at anyone who has raised any opposition to Gateway and the Prime Minister has said this is the most important project on his desk."
In the past Oliver has said he believes the Northern Gateway project is in the national interest and he wrote an open letter in 2010 on the eve of public environmental assessment into the pipeline decrying "radical" groups that were trying to "hijack" the regulatory process. Although the letter didn't mention Northern Gateway by name, it came in response to the thousands of opponents registering to take part in the multiyear environmental review.
During his prepared remarks to the natural gas summit, Oliver spent a significant amount of time talking about resource development generally and dealt with issues around marine and tanker safety more often associated with oil exports rather than gas.
Cullen said he saw it as an attempt to confuse the issues surrounding oil and gas pipelines.
"Maybe they're having a reconsideration that the ship has sailed so to speak on Gateway, but if they can attach it to a less controversial plan like an LNG pipeline, people will get confused or muddled," he said. "You can't come to a conference like this with a room overwhelmingly opposed to a bitumen pipeline coming through their territory and pretend using buzzwords is going to satisfy them."
While he said he's not an advocate for Northern Gateway specifically, Oliver noted his government is in favour of finding ways to get Canadian oil to the coast so it can reach new markets.
"What I've said is it's a strategic objective of our government to bring resources to tide water because we absolutely must diversify our markets but we do not have a preference for a particular commercial project," he said. "Let's wait and see what the regulatory review produces and we'll move on from there."