Jean Charest gave political advice to members of a federal panel reviewing a major TransCanada Corp. pipeline project in a private meeting while he was under contract with the Alberta-based company, says Grégory Larroque, the spokesman and counsel for the former Quebec premier.
The meeting, held at the downtown Montreal offices of Charest's law firm - McCarthy Tétrault - was requested by members of Canada's National Energy Board (NEB) who were seeking advice about how to engage with Quebecers, explained Larroque, a former political staffer to provincial cabinet ministers in Quebec. The NEB's chairman and CEO Peter Watson attended the meeting along with two board members, Lyne Mercier and Jacques Gauthier, who are both on a three-member panel reviewing TransCanada's Energy East application.
Energy East is the dominant issue facing the NEB in Quebec where the proposed pipeline faces fierce public opposition. Several critics contacted by National Observer said the meeting appeared to be inappropriate and that the revelations could further erode public faith in the ongoing review of the cross-country pipeline proposal.
The private pipeline dealings were revealed through federal records released through access to information legislation and confirmed by Larroque, who also attended the meeting, held on January 15, 2015. Watson told Charest at the start of the meeting that they could not directly discuss Energy East and they avoided the topic throughout the meeting, Larroque explained.
"It was an informal discussion that didn't last a long time," Larroque told National Observer. "But from their perspective it was a way of taking advice on how to approach Quebec."
"Infiltration by industry"
If approved, Energy East would allow TransCanada to ship up to 1.1 million barrels of crude oil per day from Alberta, Saskatchewan and midwestern U.S. states to refineries in Quebec as well as to a terminal and Irving Oil refinery in New Brunswick. Canada's oilsands producers say the project is needed to support jobs and growth in their sector, while environmentalists say it must be blocked to slow down the country's fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions.
"This is just another example of the apparent coziness between the oil and gas industry, major political parties, both provincial and federal, and the NEB," said Carole Dupuis, the coordinator of a Quebec-based citizens group called Regroupement vigilance hydrocarbures Québec. "Whether this takes the form of meetings behind closed doors, parties using industry members as political campaigners or the revolving door between the NEB and the oil and gas industry, it all adds up to a sort of infiltration of the political and regulatory worlds by the industry."
TransCanada has confirmed that it was paying Charest, who served as Quebec premier from 2003 to 2012, for consulting work up until September 2015, but declined to say whether it was aware of Charest's meeting with the NEB at the McCarthy Tétrault offices. When asked whether Charest informed TransCanada about the meeting, Larroque said: "Not to my knowledge, neither before, nor after."
The National Energy Board confirmed that the NEB members explicitly warned the former Quebec premier that they could not discuss the Energy East project, but said the board members were not aware about "any contracted work that Charest may have had."
"The meeting was setup... with the purpose of asking Mr. Charest for his thoughts on how the NEB could effectively engage in Quebec and which stakeholders the NEB might consider meeting," said NEB spokesman Craig Loewen in a statement, sent to National Observer.
"The NEB was not lobbied in any way during this meeting and the Energy East proposal was not discussed. No other hearing processes were discussed."
The NEB has extraordinary powers under Canadian law that are equivalent to a federal court, allowing it to review and investigate all matters under its mandate to oversee the energy sector.
At the time of the 2015 meeting, the NEB had launched a new public relations and marketing campaign to polish its image and restore public trust in pipelines and the oil and gas industry. The Energy East project was facing a backlash in Quebec over plans to build a marine terminal near a breeding site for endangered beluga whales on the St. Lawrence River - plans that the company later abandoned.
The NEB chief also met with other stakeholders representing Quebec municipalities, the provincial energy regulator and the business community during that trip, according to an internal memo that was released through access to information legislation.
Watson later met with Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre during the trip and announced that the NEB was opening a new regional office in the city to help improve its engagement with the population.
Karine Péloffy, director of the Quebec Environmental Law Centre, told National Observer in an interview that it's important for the NEB to be and appear impartial. But her organization is concerned that the NEB has been scheduling a lot of meetings with parties in favour of Energy East in advance of the formal hearings. These parties had applied or were in the process of applying to participate in the review process, she explained, but the NEB had not extended the same invitation to many of the groups opposed.
"Even the concept of a tour is an unusual behavior for a tribunal," she said.
Charest was recently cleared by the federal lobbying commissioner, Karen Shepherd, after an investigation that was initiated by Prime Minister Trudeau's office following a phone call with the former premier earlier this year. The prime minister's office said Charest had asked Trudeau's advisor, Gerald Butts, about arranging a meeting with TransCanada, Globe and Mail reporter Daniel Leblanc revealed in March. The commissioner's office concluded that Charest, who never registered as a lobbyist, was not being paid by TransCanada at that time and was not doing any lobbying work.
Charest has said he provided strategic advice to TransCanada and didn't do any lobbying.
If the topic of Energy East had been raised at the meeting, Charest would have told the participants of the January 2015 meeting about his work with TransCanada, the former premier's spokesman added.
Larroque also said the former premier told Watson and the other board members, during the meeting that the NEB needed to reach out to a wide-range of stakeholders to build public trust, including members of civil society, environmental groups, municipal leaders and various industry stakeholders such as leaders from the agriculture sector.
Charest also told them that if the NEB wanted to have a transparent dialogue, that it had a moral obligation to meet with all stakeholders, Larroque said, adding that the former premier highlighted Quebec's hydroelectric capacity in the meeting, while noting that hydrocarbons and the oil and gas industry were not top of mind in the province.
Charest has a green reputation
Charest has developed a reputation as a green politician, leading Canada's delegation to the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil where he was praised for action on biodiversity and climate change. More recently, his former government in Quebec was heralded as a global leader in climate change. But he has been criticized by environmentalists for openly supporting TransCanada's Energy East project.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, who says she worked with Charest at the 1992 summit in Rio de Janeiro, said she still considers Charest as a friend because of his work at that conference. But she added that she was disappointed about his support for new pipelines.
"His work at the Earth summit was stellar," May told National Observer. "I just think it's unfortunate he has taken up the side of Energy East when so many Quebecers are against it."
Editor's note: This story was updated with a modified headline at 12 p.m. ET on Friday and with additional comments from Grégory Larroque.