OTTAWA, Aug 3 (Reuters) - A top Canadian cabinet minister has blasted Enbridge Inc's environmental record, casting more doubt on whether the company will be able to build a controversial pipeline from Alberta's oil sands to the Pacific Coast.
Heritage Minister James Moore's comments - the first attack by any top Canadian government official on Enbridge - also reveal that a rare split has opened up inside the cabinet over the proposed C$6 billion ($6 billion) Northern Gateway project, which the Conservative government backs strongly.
Moore is the senior political minister for British Columbia, the province where the pipeline would end. His remarks come at a bad time for Enbridge, which is under heavy pressure in the United States over leaks from its existing network there.
The 1,177 km (731 mile) Northern Gateway would take 525,000 barrels a day of crude from the Alberta tar sands across the Rocky Mountains to Kitimat on the British Columbia coast for export to China and other energy-hungry Asian nations.
"This project will not survive public scrutiny unless Enbridge takes far more seriously their obligation to engage the public and to answer those very legitimate questions about the way in which they've operated their business in the very recent past," Moore told a Vancouver radio station on Wednesday.
The provincial Liberal government in British Columbia - trailing the anti-Gateway main opposition party ahead of an election next year - toughened its tone last month and vowed to block the pipeline unless Alberta handed over more royalties.
Moore compared Enbridge's record with that of Kinder Morgan , which he said had made all the right moves as it went ahead with plans to more than double the capacity of its Trans Mountain Line, which also runs from Alberta to British Columbia.
"There's a difference, I think, night and day between (Kinder Morgan) ... and Enbridge, which I think their track record is not one that I think any other company should follow if they want to do business in British Columbia," he said.
British Columbia is important for the Conservatives, which hold 21 of the province's 36 federal seats.
Asked about Moore's comments, Enbridge President Al Monaco said his company has held 17,000 meetings so far with people who might be affected by the Northern Gateway.
"It's appropriate because there is concern about the project, and it's our job to make sure that we are explaining the benefits, and ensuring that we address the risks that people are raising," he told a conference call on Thursday.
Moore's remarks contradict those of Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, who is from Alberta and is one of the most influential members of the federal cabinet. Kenney last week condemned the British Columbia government's hard line on Northern Gateway.
Foreign Minister John Baird, who like Kenney is close to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, also backs Alberta's refusal to consider handing over more money.
The federal Conservative government this year pushed through measures making it easier for major pipelines to be built, prompting critics to protest that Ottawa was determined the Northern Gateway should go ahead no matter what.
"Anybody who's making assumptions about the ultimate goal of the federal government should understand that our goal is not to ram through the pipeline, but it's to put in place the best policies to ensure Canadian products can get to market with the consent of Canadians," Moore said.
A spokesman for Harper declined to comment directly on Moore's remarks, saying "the government's policy is for the responsible development of Canada's natural resources".
Enbridge, which had long insisted the Northern Gateway would be safe as initially planned, last month announced additional safety measures that would increase the overall cost by as much as C$500 million.
"(That) raises doubts about their sincerity and their environmental stewardship in the first place," Moore said.
The U.S. pipeline regulator raised pressure on Enbridge on Thursday over the latest spill on its U.S. oil pipeline network, demanding that it submit a plan to improve the safety of the entire 1,900 mile (3,060 km) system before restarting a key Midwest line.
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(Originally published August 4, 2012, in Climate Spectator.)