In the midst of the hullabaloo of the recent federal election, the National Energy Board quietly appointed a new regional director in Montreal, a former press aide to Stephen Harper.

The NEB appointed Marc-Andre Plouffe to the position for a two-year term, beginning on September 21, Josee Touchette, the chief operating officer of the NEB announced to staff in an internal memo.

Plouffe’s appointment arrives ahead of the new Liberal government’s stated intention to carry out a full review of Canada’s environment assessment process, which includes examining the NEB and potentially looking at the criteria under which it operates and how the agency makes appointments.

The NEB has opened two regional offices, one in Vancouver and one in Montreal. Plouffe leads the latter office.

According to Craig Lowen, Director of Public Affairs and Media Relations for the NEB, the offices are meant to strengthen the NEB’s regional presence, raise awareness about its work, and to build stronger relationships with regional institutions, communities, landowners and Aboriginal groups.

Plouffe is a former journalist, who began his career at Radio-Canada in 1994, working as a journalist, editor, assistant news desk editor and finally as news desk editor for the broadcaster, RDI.

The memo said Plouffe worked in ministerial offices as a press secretary, an assistant communications director on the Quebec Desk, and then as a chief of staff. At one point, Plouffe served as a deputy director of communications in the Prime Minister’s Office.

NEB says Plouffe "met merit" and is non-partisan

Lowen said Plouffe is a non-partisan public servant and the NEB has full confidence in his ability in his new role.

Lowen said to hire Plouffe the agency ran an externally advertised competitive process consistent with the legislation and guidelines established by the Public Service Commission of Canada.

“He met merit and the appointment was non-partisan,” Lowen said.

Mark Calzavara, the Ontario organizer with the Council of Canadians, was critical of the appointment. He wondered why the appointment didn’t go to someone with expertise in the environment or engineering. “That makes much more sense,” Calzavara said.

“It’s one of the complaints we have with the NEB in general, it tends to be the wrong kind of people that get appointed to the NEB. It tends to be lawyers and political appointees instead of it being people with expertise.”

Adam Scott, the climate and energy program manager with Environmental Defence, said the NEB has had a worrisome record of appointments. “We’ve seen some troubling appointments in the past, less political ones, but more of a revolving door with the industry that the board is regulating.”

Scott said the issue is anyone coming from any organization’s office – in this instance the former prime minister’s – which has stated a clear position in one or another on any of the projects before the board.

“The prime minister’s office was very clearly in favour of all the major oil pipeline projects before the National Energy Board, which would indicate there’s potential bias from somebody coming from that place.”

New regional offices about convincing the regions that NEB is on top of things

Calzavara agreed, noting that “the Harper government and Harper himself had the well-earned reputation of being pro-pipeline and oil gas, to the point where they were changing rules and regulations across Canada to make it easier for the oil and gas industry.

“It’s one of many problems for the NEB is it gets these sorts of appointments made.”

Calzavara said the NEB’s regional offices are a relatively new development. “It seems like it’s all about convincing the regions that the NEB is on top of things and can be trusted to do the regulation and fulfill their mandate, which is to look out for all Canadians.”

Earlier this year the NEB ran into trouble over the Harper government’s appointment of a Kinder Morgan consultant to the board. The conflict of interest over the hire caused the NEB to postpone public hearings into Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

The latter drew a blistering attack on Sunday from Robyn Allan, an economist and expert intervenor in Kinder Morgan’s proposed pipeline expansion. Writing Sunday in National Observer, Allan lambasted the NEB, declaring “Direct experience with the Board process led me to conclude the outcome of its deliberations would not be fair or balanced.”

Allan called the review process “a farce” and said that it “exposed the Board as the industry-captured regulator it has become.”

Shortly after the election, newly elected MP for West Vancouver, Pamela Goldsmith Jones, said the Liberal Party needs to establish a fair and transparent environmental review process, which “includes restoring the integrity of the National Energy Board.”

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