CALGARY, Alberta, Sept 4 (Reuters) - Enbridge Inc, Canada's largest pipeline company, no longer expects to complete its controversial C$7.9 billion ($7.3 billion) Northern Gateway oil pipeline by 2018, a company official said on Thursday.
John Carruthers, president of Enbridge's Northern Gateway unit, said a number of issues need to be sorted out before construction can begin, including winning additional support from aboriginal communities along the 525,000 barrel-per-day line's route through northern British Columbia
"We have stated that the earliest in-service date was 2018," Carruthers said following a speech to a Calgary business audience. "That's quickly evaporating because we need to have this time to meet with people. The focus is on re-engagement, not the in-service date."
Canadian energy regulators approved the pipeline, with more than 200 conditions, late last year. However, the project, which would take oil sands crude from near Edmonton, Alberta, to a deepwater port at Kitimat on British Columbia's northern coast, is opposed by most of the communities along its B.C. route.
Like the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to the United States, Northern Gateway is also loathed by environmentalists who fear it will hasten the development of Canada's oil sands and exacerbate climate change. They also worry about the risk of a spill along the pipeline route or near the coastline.
Canada's ruling Conservatives strongly support Keystone and Northern Gateway as crucial for the development of the oil sands and in turn Canada's economic future. The line to the Pacific would allow Canadian oil producers, now dependant on U.S. markets, to tap energy-hungry Asian markets.
Enbridge shares were down 0.5 percent at C$54.91 at midday on Thursday on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
($1 = 1.0838 Canadian dollars) (Reporting by Scott Haggett; editing by Matthew Lewis)