The delay of the Keystone XL pipeline to the U.S. Gulf Coast has renewed calls to make the Northern Gateway pipeline from Alberta's oilsands to the B.C. coast a Canadian national imperative.
The Harper government and U.S. Congressmen both said Wednesday's decision increases the likelihood that China will become a major new buyer of Alberta bitumen.
"Obviously, this whole episode underlines the importance of diversifying our market," Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird told reporters in Toronto. "We can't have only one customer."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has argued that Enbridge Inc.'s $5.5billion Northern Gateway pipeline is a key strategic initiative for Canada in light of the political problems faced by TransCanada Inc., the proponents of the Keystone XL project.
But critics and analysts said another setback for the Canadian oilpatch - the official collapse Wednesday of Enbridge's agreement with the Gitxsan First Nation - raises questions about the inevitability of the Alberta-B.C. megaproject.
Enbridge, which said last month the Gitxsan deal was a signal to Canadians of aboriginal support for the project, confirmed that hereditary chiefs had voted against the agreement.
"While we are disappointed at this shift in stance in relation to our 2009 protocol agreement with the nation and in relation to 2011 meetings with hereditary representatives, we respect this decision," Enbridge spokesman Paul Stanway in a statement.
One B.C. aboriginal leader said the Harper government's response to the Keystone decision is simply rhetoric that ignores the constitutional rights of First Nations.
"You play hockey? You know all the mouthin' off that happens? That's what's happening right now," said David Luggi, chief of the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council in Prince George. "It's just chirpin' by Prime Minister Harper. We have our game faces on and we're ready."
Wednesday's decision will put new pressure on the joint review hearings for the Northern Gateway pipeline, which began earlier this month, say some observers.
"The federal government is going to be exerting more pressure on the National Energy Board to arrive at the decision it wants," said Ed Whittingham, executive director of the Pembina Institute.
Instead, however, Whittingham said Harper's government ought to look at the U.S. decision as a signal there needs to be a "credible plan" for sustainably developing the oilsands.
His Alberta-based think-tank, focused on energy alternatives, is opposed to both the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway proposals.
"When it comes to either Keystone or Northern Gateway or any other proposed pipeline attached to the oilsands, we say, 'Listen, we want to see that credible plan for responsible development in place first, before we put in a bunch of additional pipeline capacity that frankly we don't need over the short term.'" A U.S. policy analyst said the Harper government's new focus on selling bitumen to China won't have a huge influence on U.S. policy-makers.
Chris Sands of the Hudson Institute said American decision-makers know Northern Gateway is far from imminent. The project isn't set to be completed until late 2017.
"If Nebraska politics and American politics are tough, politics in B.C. are going to be tougher with the natives and so on," Sands said.
"Nobody believes Harper can deliver on the threat, except in the longer term. So they say, 'OK, we'll delay your (Keystone) pipeline for another year. Get over it.' "