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Canadian Senate committee passes 187 amendments to energy project bill

(Adds comment from Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, paragraph 12)

By Nia Williams

CALGARY, Alberta, May 17 (Reuters) - A Canadian Senate committee has passed 187 amendments to an energy bill proposed by the Liberal government that would change how major projects like oil export pipelines are assessed.

The unusually high number of amendments, approved late Thursday, was welcomed by oil companies and the premier of Canada's main crude-producing province, Alberta. But environmental groups warned the changes represent a step backwards in Canada's commitment to tackling climate change.

Bill C-69 will now go back to the Senate, which will vote on the amendments, and then to the House of Commons for final approval, where the government can accept, reject or further amend the legislation.

"The oil and gas industry has won a huge victory with these amendments," said Joshua Ginsberg, lawyer for environmental group Ecojustice, adding the changes undermine scrutiny of carbon-intensive projects.

The bill proposes reforming how major projects are assessed in Canada, building on an election pledge from Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to streamline and restore trust in the environmental approvals process.

Bill C-69 in its original form was fiercely opposed by the oil industry. Critics said it would deter investment in the sector by creating uncertainty and giving too much power to the federal ministers to veto projects.

"Amendments put forward by the Conservative Senate caucus reduce the opportunities for political interference, and provide greater certainty for energy companies as they plan future developments," the opposition Conservative Party said in a statement from the Senate.

The amendments come a day after another Senate committee recommended the federal government scrap a proposed bill banning oil tankers from docking along British Columbia's northern coast.

Canada's energy industry has campaigned to have both bills amended or pulled altogether.

"We've said all along that this legislation must allow our industry to remain competitive and not stand in the way of improved market access for Canada's oil and natural gas resources," said Cenovus Energy spokeswoman Sonja Franklin.

"At first glance, it looks like many of the amendments are in line with positions that are important to Cenovus and our industry."

Tim McMillan, CEO of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said the amendment package is essential to make Bill C-69 workable. However, he cautioned against bolting on further amendments going forward that would create a "Frankenstein of a bill" and scare off investors.

A spokeswoman for Canada's Minister of Environment and Climate Change said the government is open to amendments that strengthen and improve the bill. (Reporting by Nia Williams in Calgary Additional reporting by Steve Scherer in Ottawa Editing by Susan Thomas and Matthew Lewis)