Despite ongoing concerns raised by First Nations, the Trudeau government says it's "on track" to conclude its review and make a decision on the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project.
Canadian Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi made the comments after concluding his participation at the annual CERAWeek energy conference, a major industry gathering in the Texan oil capital of Houston.
The government was forced to return to talks after a federal appeal court in August found it had failed in its legal duty to consult First Nations and did not consider all the evidence when approving the project while it was still owned by Houston-based energy giant Kinder Morgan.
Last year, Sohi's predecessor, Jim Carr, and his chief of staff Zoe Caron met with officials from Texas energy giant Kinder Morgan at the previous CERAWeek conference, kicking off negotiations that later resulted in Ottawa buying the existing Trans Mountain pipeline system and the rights to build the expansion for $4.5 billion.
The deal, finalized at the end of the summer of 2018, means that Ottawa must navigate both as owner and regulator of the pipeline expansion project.
Sohi said an enlarged team of officials under the direction of retired Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci had met with more than 100 Indigenous communities since the ruling and that the work is “proceeding as planned.”
“There are a wide range of issues that communities have identified," he said, including the effect of the development on their cultural practices; its impact on the land, water, fish, and other food sources; and the effect of potential spills and adequate response times.
Sohi said the government would “continue to make every effort to resolve those issues,” and that if it cannot offer suitable accommodations, it will make it very clear why it was not possible.
“We are in a good position, or strong position, to conclude consultations within the 90 days issuance of the NEB’s report,” he said.
Some First Nations leaders have criticized the government's new round of consultations, with one even calling for Iacobucci, also a legal counsel representing Quebec engineering company SNC-Lavalin, to resign.
The Calgary-based National Energy Board, an arms-length regulator, said in February it found the proposed project "justified" to find more oil markets and to create jobs, despite likely "significant" adverse environmental impacts on Southern resident killer whales, on Indigenous cultural use related to the whales and on greenhouse gas emissions.
This came months after the court ruling in August found that the NEB made a "critical error" when it decided not to include tanker traffic as part of its initial review.
Sohi said Iacobucci had been brought in specifically to ensure the criticisms of Justice Eleanor Dawson, who authored the Federal Court of Appeal decision, were answered the second time around and that government representatives would be careful not to repeat the mistakes Ottawa made in the first process.
Justice Dawson called previous federal consultants glorified "note-takers" who recorded concerns without acting.
Sohi said cabinet will ultimately make a decision on the project — which would triple the amount of oil and other petroleum products that can be sent from producers in Alberta's oilsands to an expanded terminal in metro Vancouver, British Columbia — "only once satisfied its obligation to consult has been met."
The expansion would allow Alberta’s oilpatch to transport much more product to coastal B.C., where it would then be shipped to markets in Asia, with tanker traffic from the Westridge Marine Terminal expected to increase from about five vessels a month to one a day.
Some First Nations representatives and environmental groups have pledged to continue fighting the pipeline and vowed it would never be built.
Sohi said he also told U.S. industry executives and government officials at the conference that Alberta’s oilsands sector is a good place to invest in fossil fuel extraction and that Canada is committing to getting more pipelines built.