Canada says 'in strong position' in consultations on Trans Mountain pipeline

FILE PHOTO: Steel pipe to be used in the oil pipeline construction of Kinder Morgan Canada's Trans Mountain Expansion Project at a stockpile site in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada May 29, 2018. REUTERS/Dennis Owen

CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - The Canadian government said on Wednesday it is beefing up consultations with aboriginal groups to avoid further delays to the Trans Mountain oil pipeline expansion and is confident it will meet a deadline to ensure the critical project goes ahead.

The pipeline connecting the Alberta oil sands to the Pacific coast, which is essential to getting more Canadian crude to overseas markets, was bought by the government in August 2018 from Kinder Morgan Canada to ensure it gets built.

Although its expansion was approved in 2016, the decision was overturned by Canada’s Federal Court of Appeal, in part because the court ruled that indigenous groups were not adequately consulted.

After a new review, the National Energy Board regulator on Feb. 22 recommended the government re-approve the project. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet has 90 days from that date to decide whether or not to go ahead.

Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi said on Wednesday that he was confident consultations with indigenous groups would be wrapped up within the 90 days.

“Based on the work we have done so far and the work we will continue to do over the next few months, I feel we are in strong position,” Sohi told reporters from Houston where he was attending an international energy conference.

The government has doubled the number of consultants on the project to 60, all of whom have been fully trained and given a mandate to negotiate any issues raised by indigenous groups, and have met with more than a hundred indigenous communities along the pipeline route, he said.

Ottawa has also employed outside experts and hired retired Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci to determine whether the government is meeting the constitutional requirements for “meaningful consultation,” he said.

Canada, the world’s fourth-largest oil producer, is struggling with congestion on export pipelines as rising production outpaces takeaway capacity.

Additional reporting by Collin Eaton in Houston; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall