Canada is preparing to modernize the review process for energy projects such as contentious pipelines.

The aim, in part, is to restore public confidence in the National Energy Board (NEB) – a discredited regulator currently stacked with former oil and gas industry insiders, like Lyne Mercier (once with Gaz Métro) and Steven Kelly (a former Kinder Morgan advisor).

However, implementation of one key recommendation would, in my opinion, further undermine trust in decision making and mire pipeline approvals in added controversy. The recommendation is that cabinet should decide whether a major project is in "the national interest" before a detailed project review takes place.

Put simply, the pipeline industry wants the federal government to reject or approve major energy projects—like pipelines—before they’ve undergone a technical review and environmental assessment. Proponents include TransCanada, Kinder Morgan, Enbridge and the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association. Most recently, this recommendation was championed in The Financial Post in an op-ed by two former TransCanada executives.

Putting the cart before the horse

The government-appointed NEB modernization expert panel has recommended such a process to the government. The panel recommended a two-part review beginning with a one-year process to determine whether a major project is aligned with “national interest." Cabinet would make that decision, "informed by substantive Indigenous consultation and stakeholder engagement." This would take place before the detailed project review or licensing decisions.

To be fair, the report by the expert panel released last month, contains some good recommendations to improve energy regulation, project reviews, data collection and dissemination, public participation, and the regulator’s relationship with Indigenous peoples.

But the recommendation for government approval for major energy projects before a technical review and environmental assessment is way off the mark. It would only invite more distrust, controversy and political gridlock. It's a classic case of putting the cart before the horse.

Industry says this will make approvals simpler because politicians, once having decided that a project is in the national interest, would then be in a position to champion energy projects. I guess the energy industry has a short memory. The industry already tried paving the way for project approvals by convincing the previous federal government to tilt the review process in its favour, by placing severe restrictions on NEB hearings and systematically dismantling decades of environmental protection laws in 2012.

And they could have found no stronger a champion than former prime minister Stephen Harper.

A strategy that backfired

But their strategy backfired spectacularly. No new pipelines have been built and public trust in government decisions plummeted, which is why Canada’s environmental laws and processes themselves are now being overhauled.

The industry’s claim that the two-stage process would resolve pipeline gridlock and provide greater business certainty is mistaken. A project that’s green-lighted in the first stage would simply ensure that the technical review and environmental assessment become lightning rods for public discontent and political controversy. Public concerns about a project's impacts on land, water, air, communities and Indigenous rights would be unearthed during a technical review and environmental assessment. These concerns should help determine whether a project is in the public interest and inform a final government decision, NOT be raised as an afterthought following cabinet approval.

For the NEB overhaul to be meaningful, environmental impacts should be assessed by an independent impact assessment agency, as was recommended by an expert panel on the review of environmental assessment processes.

The government should put in place a proper climate test that ensures all major energy projects fit within Canada’s climate targets and make economic sense in a world that has agreed to limit global warming by a maximum two degrees Celsius. And the federal government needs to get serious about the commitment to Indigenous reconciliation.

The decision on whether a project should go forward, and whether it finds political support, should only be made once all the facts are on the table.

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Comments

Bien sûr… Suggest a first step favourable to the industry, and the remaining recommendations become meaningless.
Ass backwards = the NEB's proposed "modernization".

Well, there's the equally important problem that as proposed, the cabinet will have the exclusive right to decide appeals. Instead of the cabinet being the final decision-maker, judicial review of the
environmental assessments of the NEB must become a possibility.

The "national interest" is a meaningless term that governments have used to justify decisions made for reasons of partisan interest, political expedience or payback for years. In reality it is often utterly against the nation's interest. TransMountain is a prime example. Best case scenario for building is that it aids in a massive increase of GHGs for decades to come. Worst case is many scenarios involving shipwrecks, tar-soaked shores, extinct species of orca, an end to salmon, rivers and streams turned into corridors of death, wilderness ecosystems becoming dead zones. The claim that we can cut GHGs while massively increasing tarsand expansion (into endangered caribou habitats, no less) and exporting Dilbit is so absurd they didn't even bother creating a "feel good" story with graphs or pie charts about how it can be done. Repeating a lie over and over won't make it come true.

This editorial is right on the mark. Whatever expertise the panelists have ,it does not include an abundance of common sense. During the 2015 federal election Trudeau promised to restore credibility to the NEB and Canadians ‘trust in that organization.

As should be obvious, deciding that a project is in the so-called “national interest” before environmental and technical assessments have been done would make the decision completely political .It would be driven by the party in power and the economic elites of the country who seem to exercise control over either the Liberals or the Conservatives, whoever is in power. After it has been decided that the project is in the “national interest”, the public perception would be that every effort would be made behind the scenes to make the “technical” assessments fall in line with the political decision. No matter how outrageous the environmental risk, it would be claimed that satisfactory remediation of potential hazards is possible. No matter how daunting the technical challenge, the government could virtually assume that the proponent of the project would be able to meet those challenges without cutting corners.

If it was decided in advance that a project was not in the national, it is likely that the proponents would take government to court.

Thus, no matter what decision was made politically, public trust in project decisions would dip to record lows

An excellent comment on so-called “national interest has already been provided in a previous comment. The meaninglessness of the term will be exacerbated by the Trudeau government’s decision to dial back on its promise to provide a government that is “open by default”. .Given that cabinet secrecy will continue to prevail and the cabinet will not only make the decision but will handle any appeals, Canadians will never know why a disaster like Kinder Morgan or the Site C dam were accepted. Given its record to date, it is unlikely that Canadians will ever be given an accurate or precise definition of “national interest “.In short, transparency will be completely absent.

Although there are some useful recommendations in the report such as moving the regulator away from the center of the oil industry , Calgary, political control over decision-making that is independent of environmental and technical assessments is likely be unacceptable to all but the most gullible or ideologically twisted individuals. Indeed, the notion is such a naked power grab that it seems likely to have been engineered deliberately. The intent would have been to give the illusion of a new competence, openness and fairness while actually maintaining a system that ultimately continues to favor the oil, gas and dilbit pipeline industry.

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