Enbridge Inc. has been granted conditional approval to ship oil from western Canada through an Ontario pipeline from Sarnia to Hamilton.
But opponents of the $16.9-million project - who fear it could eventually lead to Ontario being a conduit for oilsands crude - say they're encouraged by some of the restrictions laid down by the energy board.
Enbridge said in a statement that the company is "reviewing the recommendations and will provide a response later this week once the review is complete."
The ruling comes as Enbridge seeks permission to build a pipeline to ship oilsands crude through British Columbia. It has also been beset by spills at pipelines in Michigan and Wisconsin.
Enbridge Line 9 is a 76-centimetre pipe running between Sarnia and Montreal that currently carries low volumes of imported oil westward to refineries in Sarnia.
Enbridge has proposed reversing the flow to carry 152,000 barrels of light crude oil a day from western Canada eastward as far as its Westover terminal near Hamilton.
The company says the reversed pipeline "will be capable of transporting a range of crude oil products." That raised fears among groups that the line might be used to ship crude from the oilsands.
The ruling appears to set one hurdle that will have to be jumped before that can happen, however. It says the current rate structure approved for shipping oil through the line does not allow for the transport of heavy crude from the oilsands.
"In future, if Enbridge wishes to transport heavy crude oil on Line 9, it will need to apply to the board," the ruling says.
That's "somewhat positive," said Albert Koehls, a lawyer for Equiterre, one of several environmental groups that appeared before the energy board at hearings in May.
"If Ontario's to be a conduit for tar sand expansion, there should be some public dialogue or public debate," Koehls said in an interview.
If opponents wish to appeal the decision to federal court, they must file a notice within 30 days.
Pipeline opponents say that synthetic crude from the oilsands is riskier to ship, with more chances of pipeline breaks.
Enbridge says that's not the case; its lawyer Douglas Crowther called the claims "ill informed and unsubstantiated" at the May hearings.
"Enbridge simply will not transport oil that cannot be transported safely," Crowther insisted.
Enbridge noted at the hearings that reversing the pipeline's flow will involve a negligible amount of new construction along the line.
Whatever Enbridge ships through the reversed line, the company must come back to the energy board to apply for "leave to open" the pipeline before it can start operating the line.
The energy board set out a number of technical requirements that Enbridge must meet.
The company's actions in meeting the requirements will be subject to "rigorous engineering assessment by the board," said spokeswoman Erin Dottor. She said there would be no public hearings involved.
Much of the controversy around the Line 9 reversal stems from a debate over what the project entails. The current decision allows Enbridge to reverse the line from Sarnia to Hamilton. That will allow Enbridge to pipe oil south to an Imperial Oil refinery in Nanticoke, Ont., which is now supplied with imported crude.
Imperial is anxious to refine western Canadian crude, which is priced lower than imported oil.
But Enbridge has also announced it's interested in reversing the remainder of the pipeline to Montreal - although no formal application has been submitted.
The Sarnia-to-Hamilton project is called "Phase I," leading opponents to ask what further phases may be.
Several intervenors who appeared at the May hearings said that once Enbridge moves the crude to Montreal, the company will want to ship it on the ports on the U.S. east coast.
Enbridge had proposed that scheme, dubbed "Trailbreaker," but later backed away from it.
Several aboriginal groups appeared at the hearing to oppose the reversal, but the board concluded in its decision that "any potential project impacts on aboriginal interests will be minimal and will be appropriately mitigated."
Provided its conditions are met, the energy board said it is "satisfied that it is in the public interest to approve the project."
Copyright 2012 Toronto Star Newspapers Limited