In relationships, trust is king. Nowhere has this been more apparent in Canadian politics recently than with pipelines. The overtly pro-fossil fuel policies of the Harper government weakened and politicized the National Energy Board, the institution charged with conducting neutral public hearings on proposed pipelines. Predictably, Canadians’ trust in the board cratered. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberals seized on this loss of trust in their successful election campaign. They promised to restore faith in both environmental assessments generally, and the National Energy Board in particular.
So, how is that going? In late January the board declared that all decisions made by the panel that had been presiding over the Energy East pipeline review were void, effectively sending the process back to the starting line.
The former panel’s conduct was plagued by perceptions of bias after revelations that two members held secret meetings to discuss Energy East with interested stakeholders, including Jean Charest who was a paid agent of TransCanada, the company seeking approval of the pipeline. At first the board denied the substance of these meetings. When forced to reveal the facts it downplayed the corrosive effect the meetings would have on its process, which must be fair and impartial. Finally, when confronted by several legal motions and escalating public frustration, the impugned Board members recused themselves in September. January’s decision to void all of the former panel’s decisions was merely the denouement of this sorry saga.
Our organizations—Ecojustice, as representatives for Transition Initiative Kenora—worked together to bring motions and ensure that the board’s review of Energy East is fair and impartial. We celebrate January’s decision as a victory for the many people who take the time to participate in public hearings on decisions that affect our country. These processes must deal with everyone’s concerns equally and transparently, regardless of corporate might or political connections.
But we regret that no sooner than the board took a step to rebuild trust, the Trudeau government went the other direction.
The decision to restart the Energy East review gives the Trudeau government a golden opportunity to ensure that the board’s review and environmental assessment of the project is conducted under improved laws, rather than the Harper-era legislation that remains in place. This opportunity is all the more striking because Canada is unlikely to see another major pipeline application after Energy East and there is no rush to decide the project’s fate. With Trudeau’s government already having approved almost a million more barrels of new pipeline capacity (see: Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and Enbridge’s Line 3 project) and actively cheerleading U.S. President Donald Trump’s revival of the Keystone XL pipeline, even oil sands boosters can see there is little need for Energy East. If you factor in the potential climate change implications, adding Energy East is a non-starter.
Yet within hours of the board’s decision, Minister of Natural Resources Jim Carr’s office said the government will allow the restarted Energy East review to continue under Harper’s laws. Under these laws, the hearing is less likely to be fair and more likely to produce a faulty factual record on which to make a final decision. The government’s “interim pipeline measures” imposed last year—the equivalent of band-aids for a patient in critical condition—will remain the only tangible outcome of the Liberals’ high-minded election talk of restoring trust, as far as major pipeline reviews go. While the government is planning to modernize the relevant legislation, it will not happen on a timeline that’s meaningful for major pipeline reviews. This is ironic since public concern about inadequate pipeline reviews probably contributed more than anything else to the government’s reform mandate.
In a way, the Trudeau government has managed to restore trust on pipelines. After a brief period of hope for change after the election, Canadians can once again trust that when given a choice between open, fair, science-based hearings and a process designed to facilitate oil sands expansion, their federal government will choose the latter.