Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shied away from revealing the details of environmental assessment reform for pipeline projects during a press conference on Thursday in Burnaby, B.C.
The Liberal leader was on the West Coast for a major transit funding announcement when National Observer prompted him for specifics on how the "broken" National Energy Board process would be fixed for upcoming hearings on pipelines, including TransCanada's Energy East proposal.
The subject was particularly timely given that as Trudeau spoke, he stood within a municipality that is fighting tooth and nail to stop Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which was recommended by the NEB for federal approval in May.
Dozens of climate scientists were denied access to that hearing only a few months ago as NEB panelists refused to consider a National Academy of Sciences study on spills of diluted bitumen from pipelines. No cross-examination from interveners was permitted, and with Energy East's hearings on the horizon, Canadians across the country want to know: will any of that change moving forward?
Trudeau didn't give a clear answer.
More federal flip-flopping on pipeline process
"We know our responsibility is to both grow the economy, and protect and sustain our environment together," he told reporters. "The way to do that is to listen to voices of concerned communities, to engage robustly and respectfully with Indigenous leadership and concerns, and to respect science and relevant evidence in the decision-making process we take."
Pushed for an answer on whether cross-examination of evidence would be permitted in future hearings however, once again, the prime minister flip-flopped.
“The refreshed program and our new approach to the NEB will be one that will restore Canadians confidence in our ability as a government to get the balance right, to both protect our environment, and defend and create economic growth at the same time. That is what we’re committing to."
Kinder Morgan protesters crash Trudeau press conference
But the prime minister owes the public a better answer than that, according to demonstrators who crashed the press conference early on Thursday morning. Waving signs that read, "Stop Kinder Morgan!" the group of concerned Burnaby and Vancouver citizens rallied outside the transit station where Trudeau made his statement.
"That's definitely not a satisfactory answer," said protestor Mary Lovell. "If he's not going to allow cross-examinations, he needs to stand up behind that position."
The protesters received a few honks, smiles and waves from mayors, members of Parliament, and MLAs attending the funding announcement, but were not acknowledged by Trudeau himself. The subject of their contention — the Trans Mountain expansion — is a $6.8-billion proposal to add 980 kilometres of brand new pipeline to an existing system that ships 300,000 barrels per day of crude oil per day to Vancouver and Washington.
It was recommended for federal approval along with a set of 157 environmental, financial and technical conditions last month, but that doesn't mean it's too late to stop it, according to Lovell. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson recently joined First Nations leaders in Ottawa to lobby against the project, and she and other protesters plan to take a leaf out of their book.
"We plan on attending various events that the prime minister is speaking at in order to draw attention to Kinder Morgan's expansion through this coast," she explained, shouting over cries of "Stop Kinder Morgan!"
The project is opposed by at least 17 Indigenous nations and 20 municipalities, who say it would plough through their communities, critically endanger resident killer whale and salmon populations, and increase the risk of a catastrophic ocean oil spill by 600 per cent. The cabinet is expected to vote on the project by December this year.
NEB makes promises for Energy East
Trudeau may have been silent on the details of how NEB hearings would become more thorough and transparent moving forward, but at a press conference in Calgary on Thursday morning, the regulatory body itself indicated that hearings for Energy East will be “one of the most innovative” of their kind in history.
The general public will be permitted to attend panel sessions along the pipeline's proposed route in Quebec, Ontario, and the Prairie provinces, and ask TransCanada questions directly. Energy East is a $15.7-billion proposal to build a 4,500-kilometre pipeline carrying crude oil from the West all the way to New Brunswick, and its hearings are slated to begin in August.
In January, the federal government promised the public that pipeline projects would face a new environmental assessment process that imposes more steps on pipelines before they can be built. Additional measures included analysis of direct and upstream greenhouse gas emissions, more consultation with Indigenous peoples, and decisions based on science, relevant evidence, and the traditional knowledge of Indigenous communities.