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By Lauren Krugel
CALGARY — Canada's energy watchdog is ordering pipeline companies to post their emergency response plans online as part of a broader effort to build public trust.
The National Energy Board believes it's the first regulator in North America to have that requirement. Companies must have their emergency procedures manuals available on their websites by the end of September, according to the order issued Tuesday.
Some information may be excluded, such as personal information and details that may jeopardize security or harm traditional indigenous sites or at-risk species.
Board chairman Peter Watson has been travelling the country discussing the role of a regulator that at one time flew under the radar of most Canadians.
Based on the feedback he got, Watson said there is a growing public appetite for transparency as the debate intensifies over pipelines and the development of the oil and gas they carry.
"We've always reviewed manuals, we've always reviewed companies' emergency management systems to make sure they're robust, but Canadians are now saying they want more information and we're just acting on what Canadians are telling us," Watson said in an interview in the NEB's downtown Calgary office.
"This is an example where I felt quite strongly that we could put more information out about companies' emergency response plans and help people understand what's at play and how these things work. And that will, I think, give them more confidence that we know what we're doing around these systems for emergency response."
The order applies to Kinder Morgan's existing Trans Mountain pipeline, which ships 300,000 barrels a day of various petroleum products from Alberta to the B.C. Lower Mainland.
Kinder Morgan is aiming to triple the capacity of the line. The NEB has wrapped up hearings into that contentious project and Ottawa's final decision is expected in December.
"If the expansion is approved, and the project goes ahead, they will then need to update their (emergency response) plan for the expansion project," said Watson.
The NEB completed public consultations last summer about how emergency response information should be handled. It received 35 submissions, hearing from industry, first responder groups, municipal governments and others.
Environmental advocates welcomed the move, but said there are lingering concerns.
Sven Biggs, with ForestEthics, called the order a "step in the right direction," but said "there are much bigger problems at the NEB."
Biggs referred to a scathing audit by the federal environment commissioner in January that found the board had failed to properly track pipeline approval conditions and follow up on compliance problems.
Adam Scott, with Environmental Defence said: "I don't think it's going to solve all of their problems, but I think it's a really positive step."
"I think it will be very interesting to see what the companies post."
In particular, Scott said he's not optimistic companies will have adequate emergency response plans to clean up tarry oilsands bitumen that's been diluted with less viscous petroleum products.
Chris Bloomer, president and CEO of the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, called the order a "proactive" step on the part of the regulator and said it strikes the right balance.
"The public needs to know some of these things," he said.
"But they also have to be mindful that there are some security aspects of those plans that need to remain in the hands of the first responders and not (be) generally out there in the public."