The back-to-the-drawing board environmental review of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project will assess the impact of increased oil tanker traffic out to about 12 nautical miles from the B.C. coastline.
The National Energy Board released the decision Friday as it laid out the schedule for reconsidering its approval of the project by the Feb. 22 federal government deadline.
Dr. Robert Steedman, chief environment officer of the NEB, said the decision to limit the area of the assessment to 12 nautical miles, known as the territorial sea limit, was based on the comments received from interested parties. The precise reasons for the decision won't be made public by the board until next week.
However, one of the environment groups that sued Ottawa over its original environmental review of the project, says the distance does not cut it.
"From the get go it looks like a political exercise, not an environmental one," said Misty MacDuffee, a conservation biologist at the Raincoast Conservation Foundation in British Columbia.
Raincoast was one of the groups behind the successful lawsuit challenging federal approval of the expanded pipeline. It argued, and the court agreed, that cabinet and the National Energy Board erred in not considering the negative impacts of additional oil tankers on marine life, particularly on the highly endangered southern resident killer whales.
The court also found that the federal government had failed in its duty to consult with affect Indigenous groups.
The NEB had looked at some of those things in its 2015 review and even said it expected the increased tanker traffic would have a negative impact on the orcas. However, it also decided that marine shipping was outside its purview so it didn't take that into account in deciding to give the project the green light.
After the Federal Court of Appeal struck down the approval in late August, Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi ordered the NEB to go back and do a new review of the marine tankers.
Raincoast had wanted the new review to cover the area known as the exclusive economic zone, which extends 200 nautical miles from shore. MacDuffee said the 12-mile distance could leave out a number of endangered or at-risk whales, such as blue whales, finn whales and sei whales.
MacDuffee said the NEB's decision is very disappointing and might simply be setting the project on another collision course with the courts for failing to do a broad enough assessment.
Steedman said organizations can still submit comments to the board about the impact on other whales if they wish.
It's estimated the project, which will triple the capacity of the existing pipeline, would result in an additional 30 oil tankers traversing the Burrard Inlet each month.
The NEB review will look at the environmental effects those extra ships will have on species at risk, the potential for oil spills and any mitigation measures that are feasible to prevent negative impacts from increased tanker traffic.
The board is imposing filing deadlines for interveners starting this month, will hear oral traditional evidence by Indigenous groups in November and December and will hear potential oral summary arguments in January.
The federal government has appointed former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci to oversee a new round of consultations with Indigenous communities. It has put no deadline on those consultations.