A federal panel reviewing a proposed pipeline that would allow Canada's oil to be shipped to Asia has recommended that the Canadian government approve the controversial project.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government has staunchly supported the Northern Gateway pipeline, but the proposal has sparked fierce opposition from environmentalists and aboriginal groups.

"The panel found that the project, if built and operated in compliance with the conditions set out in its report, would be in the public interest," the federal panel said in a statement on Thursday.

No project will be approved unless it is safe for Canadians and safe for the environment.

Joe Oliver, 
Natural Resource Minister

After 18 months of hearings, the three-person review panel recommended approval of the pipeline with 209 conditions, including steps to protect marine mammals and restore caribou habitat.

Canada's Natural Resource Minister, Joe Oliver, said the government would thoroughly review the recommendations and consult with affected aboriginal groups before making a final decision.

"No project will be approved unless it is safe for Canadians and safe for the environment," he said.

The multibillion-dollar Enbridge pipeline would move crude from the oil sands in the western Canadian province of Alberta to the Pacific Coast for shipping overseas.

If the plan goes ahead, about 220 oil tankers a year would visit the westernmost province of British Columbia to transport and 525,000 barrels of oil each day.

Opponents have raised concerns over possible leaks and oil spills on the pristine Pacific Coast, and aboriginal groups still hold title to some of the lands the pipeline would cross, paving the way for possible court challenges.

Harper's federal cabinet has until July 2014 to announce its decision, but the prime minister has said previously that Canada's national interest makes the pipeline essential.

Ninety-seven percent of Canadian oil exports now go to the US.

Source: Agencies