The federal government has firmly denied conflict of interest accusations aimed at its decision to appoint an LNG lobbyist with well-known ties to Kinder Morgan to a special panel reviewing a Kinder Morgan pipeline project.

Earlier this week, environmental watchdog Dogwood Initiative demanded that the Trudeau government remove former Tsawwassen First Nation chief Kim Baird from the panel reviewing Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain expansion project, citing her close relationship to the oil and gas industry and to the Texas-based energy giant's Canadian chapter president, Ian Anderson.

In 2010, Baird participated in an exchange program with the Industry Council for Aboriginal Business, which paired her with the Kinder Morgan Canada executive so each could learn from one another's business experiences. She later became a registered lobbyist for the Woodfibre LNG project southwest of Squamish, B.C., which was recently given the environmental green light from Environment and Climate Change Canada.

"She has no ongoing relationship with Kinder Morgan; thus, no conflict of interest exists," Natural Resources Canada told National Observer in an email statement on Thursday. "Minister Carr selected the three panel members based on their reputations and the depth and breadth of their experience, including in working with Indigenous Peoples.

"Ms. Baird’s background as a former chief of the Tsawwassen First Nation and her work on LNG projects give her a deep understanding of the Indigenous, community, economic and energy dimensions of this project."

Baird too close for comfort with industry, say stakeholders

Baird was ousted from her leadership position with the Tsawwassen First Nation in 2012, but not before the band entered an open-ended memorandum of understanding to have Kinder Morgan assist it with human-resource related programming.

In a statement circulated to media however, its current Chief Bryce Williams clarified:

"Ultimately, no further engagement between the two entities took place beyond the Leadership Exchange that Ms. Baird and Mr. Anderson participated in... The total time commitment for the ICAB exchange, including group activities, was approximately six days, less than two full days of which Ms. Baird and Mr. Anderson spent at each other’s offices. There is no ongoing relationship between TFN and Kinder Morgan. TFN continues to oppose the Kinder Morgan pipeline."

But according to a promotional video made by the pipeline company, and recently circulated by Dogwood, Baird and Anderson worked in very close contact:

A promotional video by Kinder Morgan Canada touts its experience with Kim Baird in an exchange program facilitated by the Industry Council for Aboriginal Business. Video courtesy of Dogwood Initiative.

In short, Baird's relationship with the pipeline company and financial ties to the industry at large create a strong appearance of conflict of interest, argue stakeholders, an appearance that does little to restore public confidence in the federal review process for energy projects in Canada.

"I think there were many great Canadians who could have been appointed to this position and many people from the First Nations community who could have served on that panel, who had a far more objective relationship with Kinder Morgan," said Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan of the appointment.

“I had really and sincerely hoped that Justin Trudeau was sincere is his desire to change the way the system operates, but it’s becoming more apparent that this is just more of the same."

At least 17 First Nations and a handful of municipalities oppose the pipeline expansion project, which seeks to add 987 kilometres of brand new pipeline to triple the capacity of a system that already transports 300,000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta’s tar sands to ports and refineries in Vancouver and Washington. It was recommended for federal approval by the National Energy Board in May, along with 157 environmental, financial and technical conditions.

Rueben George, spokesperson for the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, said he wasn't surprised by the controversial appointment, and called the panel "a ploy to win over the public." His community has launched a series of lawsuits targeting the Trans Mountain project, and plans to continuing suing for failed consultation until the project is dead.

“I’ve been saying all along, you can’t unscramble an egg," he told National Observer. "With the National Energy Board, a 40-minute presentation isn’t consultation. What they’re setting up with Kim Baird and the rest of the panel is not consultation.

"Conflict of interest or not — it’s the time that they need to put in to have nation-to-nation conversations.”

Green Party leader Elizabeth May also said Baird "should be thanked for her service and replaced," at the very least to make the process look more credible as cabinet considers permitting the project in December.

"It’s pretty clear that when you’re studying Kinder Morgan’s proposal and you have an existing relationship with Kinder Morgan, you’ve got an appearance of conflict of interest, which contaminates the process," the former lawyer explained. “This should have been taken more seriously as an issue.

"It’s a barrier to the process being credible and if I were Trudeau’s cabinet, I would recognize that we can’t afford any barriers to the process being credible.”

Baird refusing to step down from panel

The panel was born of a federal promise to strengthen the environmental review process for major energy projects by ensuring meaningful consultation with Indigenous peoples and accommodation of rights and interests where appropriate, in addition to considering the views of communities along pipeline rotes, and assessing upstream pollution from the oilfields. Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr appointed Baird, former Alberta deputy finance minister Annette Trimbee, and former Yukon premier Tony Penikett to the Trans Mountain panel in May, shortly before the NEB released its recommendation.

Baird however, rejected calls for her resignation on Thursday, and said her experience with the exchange program will enhance her ability to participate in the panel's activities. She disclosed her relationship with Anderson to the ministry when she was first approached to participate, she said, and at the time, was assured of the minister's confidence in her ability to "participate in this panel in an honest and impartial manner."

"I am confident that no conflict of interest exists, and that I have the trust of my fellow panel members, the government and the public to fulfill our mandate," she wrote to National Observer in an email. "The watchdog organizations you refer to have a distinct agenda, and appear to be raising these issues based on opposition to the process rather than transparency or public interest."

Her role on the panel, she further noted, will not involve making recommendations to the federal government on the project, but relaying the outstanding concerns that might not have been addressed by the NEB's review.

Trans Mountain could be reached for comment on this story before the publication deadline. The federal Natural Resources Department is encouraging the public to voice their own concerns to the panel in person or online between now and October 2016.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include a statement from Tsawwassen First Nation Chief, Bryce Williams.

Kim Baird, National Energy Board, Kinder Morgan, Trans Mountain, Tsawwassen First Nation

Kim Baird, a former chief of the Tsawwassen First Nation in B.C. will review the Trans Mountain expansion and report her findings to the federal government later this year. Photo courtesy of Facebook.

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The situation described in the article certainly has the appearance of conflict of interest. As such, this appointment and doubling down on it do nothing to improve the low credibility of the NEB and its decisions.

None of this bodes well for the possibility of Canada meeting its climate change targets.