Natural Resources minister Jim Carr isn't ready to step in over the 'Charest affair' that has provoked an indefinite suspension of the Energy East pipeline hearings.
Speaking in Calgary on Tuesday, Carr said “This is something that the National Energy Board is going to have to deal with. Our interest is in making sure that the process continues and that Canadians who have an opinion have the right and the freedom to say it.”
Carr was in Calgary addressing an event hosted by the Calgary Chamber of Commerce and the Pearson Centre, a centrist think-tank, alongside environment and climate change minister Catherine McKenna. McKenna reiterated the government's view that trust in the system is an integral to getting Canada’s oil resources to market through further pipeline construction.
“We know, to get resources to market, people have to have trust. That’s going to be really critical, and we’re working really hard on that,” McKenna said.
NEB's credibility problem
Environmental groups, politicians, newspapers, and other stakeholders have called for the NEB commissioners who met with Charest to recuse themselves from the hearings, or for the NEB to step up and replace them. An editorial in The Globe and Mail on Monday declared the NEB has a "credibility problem" it can no longer afford to ignore. A recent National Observer investigation revealed the NEB board chairman and two Energy East pipeline review panelists met privately with former Quebec premier and then-TransCanada consultant Jean Charest.
Charest, who had retired from politics, was under contract with TransCanada to advise the Calgary-based company on strategy for the Energy East pipeline project. The NEB, which has the powers of a federal court, is not allowed to privately discuss matters that are under review before the Board, and meetings are required to be on the public record.
The revelations sparked public outrage, notably in Quebec, and protests became so heated that the hearings were abruptly suspended, and three demonstrators were arrested.
Environmental Defence Canada said in a statement released Tuesday that the federal government should “pull the plug” on the review process, overhaul the NEB, and restart the hearings on Energy East. Environmental Defence called the postponement of the hearings in Montreal a sign that the process is “clearly broken.”
“The NEB commissioners who met with TransCanada need to recuse themselves immediately," the organization said in a news release. "Additionally, the Energy East review process needs to be put on hold until the federal government completes the planned reform of the NEB and review of Canada’s environmental laws and processes.”
Deputy Leader of the Green Party of Canada Daniel Green, who was scheduled to address the panel about TransCanada's urban spill preparedness on Monday, said the evidence shows that NEB panelists have pro-pipeline leanings and that they should recuse themselves from the hearings before Minister of Natural Resources Jim Carr is forced to step in.
“Clearly trust has disappeared. It has escalated to violence. This has to stop, and one way to make the conversation civil is to demonstrate that the hearing will be fair and impartial. This impression that the NEB has never met a pipeline it did not approve has to be quelled,” Green said, adding that the only way to accomplish that is to appoint independent commissioners “known to be beyond reproach.”
The pipeline proposal would link Alberta oil sands to tidewater in New Brunswick. The proposal has the strong backing of western Canadian oil producers who believe it will allow them to reach new markets. TransCanada says the Energy East pipeline would support over 14,000 direct and indirect full-time jobs across Canada during development and construction.
NEB suspends Montreal hearings
Carr’s comments came as the NEB announced an indefinite suspension of hearings in Montreal. Hearings were set to begin Monday, but protesters stormed the room at the Centre Mont-Royal shouting anti-NEB slogans.
The NEB called the intrusion a “violent disruption,” and canceled Monday's session. Later in the day, the NEB announced that the second day of hearings would would also be canceled. On Tuesday, the board announced that the remaining Montreal hearings would be suspended until it ruled on legal challenges over the Charest affair.
"Given that two motions have been filed asking for the recusal of Panel Members, and given that the Board has invited written comments by September 7, 2016 on the these motions, the Board will not proceed with further Panel Sessions until it reaches a decision" reads the NEB statement.
Carr said that the NEB is ultimately going to have to determine how it wants to handle the situation, and that his government wants to hear the opinion of every Canadian who has one.
“The National Energy Board is doing what it believes it should be doing,” Carr said. “Our interest is to hear from Canadians. We promised them a process and that process is unfolding. The sooner it’s back on the rails, the better.”
Among those slated to speak at the hearings on Monday were Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, Society to Overcome Pollution’s Daniel Green, the mayor of Laval, and representatives from the Union of Quebec Municipalities.
Mayor Coderre left the hearings before the cancelation, calling them a "circus" before storming out of the room.
Coderre, along with a coalition of 81 other Montreal-area mayors, have long opposed TransCanada’s controversial 4,500 kilometre, $15.7-billion pipeline project. If built, energy East would be the third largest oil pipeline in the world.
The Charest Affair
The NEB initially denied that the chair of the NEB and Energy East panelists discussed the pipeline project with Charest after National Observer first reported on the matter in July.
But the watchdog later apologized for providing false and misleading information after records released through access to information legislation revealed that the pipeline project was in fact discussed in the meeting.
Those records consist of emails and personal notes from meetings, and show that Gauthier — who had already been named to a three-member panel to review Energy East — explicitly asked Charest to discuss the pipeline project.
But the NEB decided to soldier on with the hearings, opting to ban panel speakers from addressing the Charest affair at the Montreal Energy East hearings.
The federal energy watchdog instead asked to receive written complaints about the Charest meetings from stakeholders, saying that anyone who wanted to present arguments or comment on the request for the recusals would have to deliver them in writing by Sept. 7, 2016.
Federal Conservative Party Natural Resources Critic Candice Bergen condemned the “violent tactics” used by protesters in a statement released Tuesday. She added that pipelines are the safest and most environmentally friendly way to transport oil, adding that the Liberal government should quickly approve the project.
“We must move forward with pipelines to protect our environment and get Canadians back to work,” Bergen said. “If the Liberals are really serious about fighting climate change and protecting the environment, they will stop delaying and start approving pipelines.”