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Canadian energy giant TransCanada Corp faced uncomfortable questions about unusual behind-the-scenes tactics on Thursday as it began a new charm offensive in Ottawa to win public support for its Energy East pipeline.
If it’s built, Energy East would ship up to 1.1 million barrels a day of crude oil from western Canada and the midwestern United States all the way to Atlantic Canada on a 4,600 kilometre route that starts in Alberta and ends in New Brunswick. The oil industry says the project would create thousands of jobs and allow it to expand production in the slumping oilsands sector which has been hammered in recent years by plummeting global oil prices.
Supporters of the project have been very active this week, starting with the release of a new letter signed by several Quebec business and union leaders who back Energy East. On Thursday, TransCanada invited four major labour unions to publicly announce their support for Energy East at a training facility in suburban Ottawa for skilled workers, including pipe-fitters and other professionals that would likely get work building the pipeline.
Did Jean Charest meet with the NEB?
The event came days after revelations by National Observer that former Quebec premier Jean Charest, while on the payroll of TransCanada, had met privately with board members of the federal panel that will review the project and gave them political advice about how to engage with Quebecers about pipelines.
Charest had previously been cleared by a lobbying investigation that was prompted by concerns raised by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office that alleged the former premier had tried to set up a meeting with government on behalf of TransCanada - allegations that Charest denied.
TransCanada CEO Russ Girling appeared to be caught off guard, when asked about it during a news conference, but smiled and turned toward the company's director of communications - standing nearby - to deflect the question.
“Did Jean Charest meet with the NEB?” asked Girling. “I’m not - I have no idea. So... we can get that information for you.”
Later in the afternoon, the federal New Democrats asked the lobbying commissioner to take a second look at Charest’s contract with TransCanada with a focus, this time, on the meeting he had with the federal panel, the National Energy Board.
In a letter addressed to federal lobbying commissioner Karen Shepherd, NDP Alexandre Boulerice, who represents a Montreal-area writing, wrote that revelations about the meeting "raised concerns about potential violations of the Lobbying Act and Code with regard to questionable activities between the National Energy Board and members of the law firm McCarthy Tétrault regarding the approval of TransCanada's Energy East pipeline proposal."
Both Charest’s office and the NEB have said that no lobbying occurred in the meeting. But no one has been able to confirm whether TransCanada knew about it.
“There’s so many things in that story that don’t look good that we want the opinion of the lobbying commissioner,” said Boulerice in an interview on Thursday evening.
“They are not meeting with (just) anybody. They are meeting with an ex-premier of Quebec and the guy was paid by the TransCanada which has a project on the table of the NEB (called) Energy East. They can say that they have not talked directly about the issue, but they can talk about how Quebecers would respond to some kind of arguments related to pipelines. It’s really hard to know exactly what happened, but we would like to have the opinion of the (lobbying) commissioner about that.”
Charest's law firm, McCarthy Tétrault, didn't respond to a request for comment about the Boulerice letter to lobbying commissioner Shepherd.
We have nothing to hide, says Russ Girling
Girling had said earlier that it was normal for a company to be engaging government officials on a major project that is expected to cost about $16 billion to complete.
“So it’s no surprise that we meet with government officials at every level of government - both at the technical... right up to the ministerial level on a continuous basis,” said Girling. “But there’s nothing behind the scenes that’s not transparent. The NEB process will be transparent. Everything’s available for public information. We have nothing to hide.”
TransCanada didn't respond to follow up questions about the case, which came to light as a result of a request under federal freedom of information legislation.
Toronto-based conservation group, Environmental Defence disputed claims made at the Ottawa event that the project would create more than 14,000 jobs during nine years of construction. In a statement, the group's energy program manager, Patrick DeRochie, said that these were overstated numbers that also fail to take into account thousands of jobs the project would threaten, such as in the Atlantic Canadian fisheries industry, in the event of a major spill.
"TransCanada’s own projections show that the Energy East pipeline would create just 33 long-term direct jobs in Quebec, just 114 in Ontario, and just 132 in New Brunswick," DeRochie said.
Our members build lives on temporary jobs, says LiUNA
Leo D’Agostini, a Hamilton-based international representative for the Labourers' International Union of North America, rejected the argument from the environmental group, explaining that temporary jobs are vital for his members.
“Our members build lives on temporary jobs," he said. "We could do 25 years, strung together on temporary jobs and make a lifetime out of temporary jobs. So we support pipelines, we support oil, we support alternatives. We train our members to do all of those things. We train our members to install windmills… We also install pipe. Any type of energy that needs to be processed, whether it be hydro, whether it be oil, whether it be alternative, labourers are involved.”
D’Agostini says this is the right time to be building pipelines. He also suggested that environmentalists should start focusing on impacts of green energy options, such as the consequences of mining rare-Earth elements needed for electric cars.
The oilsands are Canada's fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions and many government studies have shown that the country cannot meet its international climate change commitments without major reductions in carbon pollution from this sector.
While environmentalists have fiercely opposed Energy East because of the risk of spills and the associated climate-warming pollution from the oil industry, TransCanada’s top boss said he wants to change the narrative that Canadian oil is “somehow dirty.” He said this is what led to the rejection of TransCanada Keystone XL project, a major pipeline that would have linked Alberta’s oilsands with refineries and marine ports in Texas on the Gulf of Mexico.
“That oil was denied on the basis of it being dirty somehow. So obviously there’s a narrative out there that’s incorrect," Girling said. "And we need to change that narrative. We wrote off several billion dollars of investment as a result of that and we can't let that occur again. People have to have the facts.”
Girling made the comments after a carefully managed event in a large garage that is part of the training facility for skilled workers. The unions backing the project include Teamsters Canada, the Labourers' International Union of North America, the International Union of Operating Engineers and the United Association of Journeyman and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry of the United States and Canada.
The unions brought a few dozen members to stand as a backdrop as Girling and the union leaders spoke about the project and signed a symbolic agreement.
Not everything went according to plan. All the people standing behind Girling and the union officials appeared to be middle-aged white men at the start of the announcement. Many of them held signs with slogans such as "Let's get it built," "Yes to jobs," and "Workers support Energy East." By the end, two women had been inserted into the middle of the crowd.