By Jeffrey Jones
CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Canada is looking at both legislative and regulatory changes in its quest cut the time it takes to approve major energy projects, although rewrites of the acts governing developments are unlikely, the country's natural resources minister said on Wednesday.
Changes aimed at streamlining regulatory proceedings are likely to start taking shape in the coming months, said Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver, who is pushing for speedier approvals after more than 4,000 people registered to comment on Enbidge Inc's Northern Gateway oil pipeline to the West Coast from Alberta.
"We do have some focused ideas we want to deal with and we're talking months, not years," Oliver told reporters.
"It is a matter of deep concern that our regulatory process is not as effective and expeditious as it should be, and so if we're going to deal with a time issue, we're going to do it in a timely way."
Oliver has invited controversy by saying that many of those who signed up to participate in the Northern Gateway hearings were part of foreign-funded radical groups bent on stacking hearings to delay them.
The Joint Review Panel conducting the added about a year to the schedule to accommodate all who wanted to comment.
However, regulatory streamlining has been part of Ottawa's plans, articulated last summer, to develop an energy strategy aimed at boosting and diversifying oil exports.
Enbridge's pipeline would move 525,000 barrels of tar sands-derived crude to the Pacific Coast, where it would be shipped to Asia and California.
Environmentalists are wary of any moves that they say might lessen protections contained in the National Energy Board and Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency acts. Those agencies are conducting the Northern Gateway hearings, which began this month.
"The eyes of the world are watching this resource," said Jennifer Grant, director the oil sands program for the Pembina Institute, an environmental think tank.
"We certainly want to see our government support the process that the National Energy Board allows, a process that allows all members of the public to have a say on a project that's of concern to them."
For its part, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the oil industry's main lobby group, said it supports moves that speed up approvals, but does not support cutting public input.
"You've got to make sure you give an adequate opportunity and you don't want to close the door on people," CAPP vice-president Greg Stringham said. "But for us, timeliness is important. There's got to be a structure, and I don't know what the answer is yet ... the balancing act has to be established."
(Editing by David Gregorio)