Jim Carr, Canadian minister of natural resources. Photo:

Opening up the environmental review process risks having process hijacked by eco-activists

Canadians lack confidence in the National Energy Board (NEB) – an assertion by eco-activist pipeline opponents which has been accepted unconditionally by the Trudeau Government. But is it true?


Gaetan Caron, former NEB chair.

Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr – the cabinet member responsible for the quasi-independent agency – certainly believes it is. There is even talk of taking energy infrastructure review away from the NEB.

“We are now in the midst of assessing permanent reforms to environmental assessment in Canada. That’s not just the National Energy Board. That would include the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and also a review of a number of acts of Parliament,” he said during a June interview.

The re-assessment is “designed to restore public confidence in the process,” according to Carr.

Where is the evidence that public confidence in the NEB needs restoring?

Frankly, there isn’t much.

A March poll from EKOS Research, commissioned by the CBC, asked a single question about confidence in the NEB. Respondents were asked how much confidence they had “in how Canada approves and regulates pipelines to carry oil and gas across the country?”

NEBOnly 10 per cent of respondents answered, “a lot of confidence” and 33 per cent told pollsters “some confidence.” A full 50 per cent had little or no confidence, while seven per cent said they didn’t know.

I would bet that not one Canadian in a hundred has an informed opinion of what the NEB does and how well it does that job – including many people who work in the oil and gas industry.

The more likely scenario is that people formed their impressions of the NEB from news coverage of the Northern Gateway and Trans Mountain Expansion protests over the past five or six years.

Eco-activists have systematically demonized the regulator. The NEB is broken, in the pocket of industry, does the bidding of the Harper Government (the Conservatives were outspoken advocates of pipeline projects), doesn’t include climate change in its assessment, etc.

Take this Nov. 7 press release from a variety of environmental groups (including Greenpeace, the David Suzuki Foundation and Équiterre) that conducted their own poll within  Quebec, which found that “89% of Quebecers support a complete reform of the federal environmental assessment before any further evaluation of the Energy East project.”

The poll was taken shortly after it was revealed that NEB board members met with TransCanada lobbyist and former Quebec Premier Jean Charest, a meeting pipeline opponents claimed was evidence the NEB is “captured” by industry. The three member board quickly resigned to protect the integrity of the agency, but that didn’t slow down the political or media narrative.

“The poll results show that Trudeau’s government cannot restore public trust in the NEB by appointing a couple of new heads,” said Karel Mayrand, senior director for Quebec of the David Suzuki Foundation.

“Quebecers no longer trust this institution and demand a truly independent process that allows citizen and indigenous communities participation and relies on climate science.”

There you have it, folks, the eco-activist strategy laid bare.

Do everything possible to break the pipeline review process (e.g. have thousands of “intervenors” register for public comments, far more than there are resources to handle), criticize the NEB in the shrillest tones possible in media comments (where neither the pipeline companies nor the NEB are eager to counter the criticisms), then demand a new review process based upon considerations far more favourable to First Nations and eco-activist concerns than engineering and technical issues.

The strategy is brilliant and it has worked perfectly.

The Liberals have accepted the premise that the NEB is broken and embarked upon a “modernization” that will at the very least deliver part of what the opponents are asking for.

The Trudeau approach is a bad one, according to Gaetan Caron, a former NEB chair and currently an executive fellow with The School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary. He’s also one of the few industry supporters who will publicly defend the national regulator.

“I’m unable to find a flaw, a mistake, an error that the NEB made in dealing with the Northern Gateway and Trans Mountain Expansion projects,” Caron said in an interview.

“Name me a flaw that requires attention to fix the NEB. My list is empty.”

Back in June, after the Federal court of Appeal threw out the Northern Gateway approval because the Harper Government failed in its “duty to consult” aboriginal peoples, Caron wrote an op-ed for the Financial Post in which he noted the judges’ praise for the NEB review.

“According to the court, what is required is a reasonable process, not perfect consultation,” Caron wrote.

“The net effect of the court’s ruling is that the existing environmental assessment and regulatory process has been found to be acceptable and not flawed. Coming from one of the highest courts in the land, a guardian of our democratic values as codified in our Constitution and our Charter of Rights, this is a very significant vote of confidence.”

When I interviewed Carr, he pointed out that Prime Minister Trudeau “has said many times that it’s a major responsibility of the Government of Canada to move our natural resources to market sustainably.”

If that is true, why roll the dice and open up the Canadian environmental review process based not upon data or science but the political talking points of groups that for the most part oppose natural resources exports?

Why risk having those very same groups try to hijack the NEB “modernization” the same way they did the Northern Gateway and Trans Mountain assessments?

The Liberals are playing a very dangerous game. Given that the Canadian economy is still driven by natural resource extraction, let’s hope they play to win.


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