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Trudeau’s pledge of robust NEB process rings hollow

Photo: Montreal police arrest an activist who protested at a National Energy Board hearing the NEB’s lack of credibility to review the Energy East pipeline proposal.

The Trudeau government has failed to win the public’s trust with its reformed pipeline review process.

In June 2015, the Canadian Press reported, “Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau says restoring a ‘gutted’ environmental review process would be part of his vision for strengthening Canada’s economy. Trudeau pledged to ‘put some teeth’ back into the National Energy Board as one of the Liberals’ top priorities if he unseats Prime Minister Stephen Harper in October. …Trudeau said the Liberals would overhaul the NEB assessment process to include more consultation with aboriginal groups and increased analysis of greenhouse gas emissions for proposed projects such as new pipelines.”

Following their election, the Liberal government announced in January that projects would be assessed based on their upstream (filling the pipeline) and direct (construction) greenhouse gas emissions, but there was no commitment to assess the much larger downstream (burning the oil) emissions. There was also no mention of the 1.5 degree global warming limit as integral to their “climate test”. And the government dodged a direct question about whether its promised deeper consultations with Indigenous peoples would respect free, prior and informed consent and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

This so-called interim review process didn’t win public confidence. In March, a CBC poll found that only 10.2 per cent of Canadians had a lot of confidence in the NEB, 32.8 per cent had some confidence, while 33.1 per cent had little confidence, and 17.4 per cent had no confidence. Pollster Frank Graves commented, “Those are underwhelming numbers. Nobody is expressing high confidence in the National Energy Board. It`s only 10 per cent of Canadians give it high marks or good marks. That’s a pretty bad figure.”

And then came the scandal of two NEB Energy East review panel commissioners privately meeting with former Quebec premier Jean Charest, a paid consultant with TransCanada, the company behind the pipeline proposal. The Globe and Mail reports, “When the National Observer website initially reported on the meeting, the NEB told its reporter that Energy East was not discussed. But it was. The NEB later apologized and admitted Energy East was part of the discussion. Whoops. That looks bad. That’s how we learned two of the three members of the impartial Energy East panel met with an Energy East consultant to talk about Energy East, behind closed doors.”

On August 13, The Council of Canadians and numerous other groups wrote the federal government asking that, “The Chairman and the commissioners involved in the meeting be removed from the Energy East panel and as NEB commissioners. Without such action, the overall Energy East evaluation process will remain tainted by serious misconduct and Canadians will not be able to trust its conclusions.”

The NEB tried to proceed as if nothing had happened, so activists disrupted the Energy East hearing in Montreal on August 29 with most of the room chanting “only communities can grant permission”.

Natural resources minister Jim Carr responded in the media saying, “The National Energy Board is doing what it believes it should be doing. Our interest is to hear from Canadians. We promised them a process and that process is unfolding. The sooner it’s back on the rails, the better.”

Environment minister Catherine McKenna commented, “We know, to get resources to market, people have to have trust.” This was a particularly disturbing comment in that it implied the purpose of the hearings are to let people talk, make them feel like they have been heard, and then approve the pipeline.

Trudeau made a similar remark in January when he said, “Canadians believe that a strong economy goes hand in hand with a strong and protected environment, and that’s exactly what we’re committed to. I’m feeling very good about our capacity to get our resources to market in a responsible and environmentally sustainable way.”

Yesterday, while at the G20 summit in China, Trudeau commented on the NEB crisis: “From the very beginning we have said that we understand that Canadians expect both environmental protection and economic development at the same time. …What we committed to do is establish clear processes whereby the public trust can be earned for energy projects or infrastructure projects that both will create growth and make sure that the environment was protected and that’s exactly what we’re committed to and that’s exactly what we’re working on.”

The federal may be working on winning public trust for the process, but it does not have that public trust.

Beyond the demand for the commissioners to step down, we are calling on the federal government to halt the Energy East hearings until processes are developed to respect the principle of free, prior and informed consent, and a credible climate test is implemented that takes into account Canada’s carbon budget as well as upstream and downstream climate emissions.

The NEB could announce what it will do next in terms of its hearings into the Energy East pipeline as early as this coming Wednesday.