How NEB’s bid to engage backfired
- 3 Sep 2016
- National Post – (Latest Edition)
- Financial Post
How NEB’s bid to engage backfired
The National Energy Board’s inability to guarantee safety in the aftermath of the violent protest in Montreal is one reason it suspended public hearings on the Energy East pipeline this week.
The other is that it has to consider motions by environmental activists demanding that two panel members be fired because they met with former Quebec Premier Jean Charest, when he was allegedly a “paid agent” for TransCanada Corp., the proponent of the $ 15.7- billion project.
The NEB has invited written comments on the issue by Sept. 7, and said it won’t proceed with further hearings until it has reached a decision on the motions’ merit.
For sure, the optics — as presented by activists — are lousy. They claim the panel members had email exchanges with the former Quebec premier and held a “private” meeting that also included NEB chair and CEO Peter Watson. Energy East was discussed, supposedly disregarding the regulator’s own guidelines.
“The rule against bias is essential because justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done,” Transition Initiative Kenora, an environmental group represented by Ecojustice. said in its document.
The second and similar motion requesting the removal of the two panel members was presented by Stratégies Énergétiques ( S. É.) et l ’Association québécoise de lutte contre la pollution atmosphérique (AQLPA).
What’s less talked about — and should be — is that the meeting with Charest was part of a well- intended national effort of self-improvement by the national regulator to rebuild public trust by being more transparent and engaged with Canadians.
Indeed, TIK said it, too, met with the NEB as part of the NEB’s national engagement tour ( though none of the Energy East panel members were present), and so did Equiterre.
In a report on the effort, Watson wrote: “It was clear to me that inaction in the face of that public debate was not an option. The NEB needed to understand what was at the heart of the debate, and to be prepared to respond. To truly understand the public’s views on pipeline infrastructure, we would have to get out from behind our desks and our meeting room tables.”
In a news release last month, the NEB responded to the activists’ allegations by saying: “When planning for the national engagement tour began, the Board was particularly keen to engage more effectively with Québecers and so it sought out advice from several leaders in Québec society on whom the NEB should meet during that portion of the national engagement tour. The leaders from Québec society that the NEB met included officials from Municipal Associations, Chambers of Commerce, a Mayor and a former Premier.”
The NEB said some wanted to discuss pipeline projects under review, but “at no time did the NEB officials at the meetings permit any inappropriate discussion of those matters.”
The campaign led to a reorganization of the NEB to make engagement a major priority. The regulator said it designed the Energy East pipeline hearing by “opening up the process dramatically for interveners and the general public — to help ensure it is the most innovative hearing in the history of the National Energy Board.”
Perhaps the NEB should have been less naive about how its efforts to improve would be received. Pipeline battles have brought to the surface Canadians’ ugliest traits. Claims of bias, in particular, are a staple inside and outside public hearings.
As for the activists, instead of applauding the NEB’s effort to become more open to change, they accused the t hree- member bilingual panel of inappropriate behaviour. One has to wonder what they would have said if the NEB had avoided engagement with Quebec altogether, also to avoid inappropriate discussion on Energy East.
The implications are significant: panel members Jacques Gauthier and Lynne Mercier could be kicked out; if they are not the whole mess could land before the Federal Court of Appeal; the NEB could have to restart the review altogether.
Ecojustice warns as much in its motion: “Early resolution of this matter is imperative given that the Energy East hearing has only just begun and the Panel will preside over the hearing for another 19 months.
“Addressing the issue of bias after such lengthy proceedings have concluded, with the potential for the entire proceedings to be quashed, risks wasting a great deal of each parties time and effort. Many community-oriented groups like TIK could lack the capacity to engage in a lengthy hearing process on a 38,000-plus page application not once, but twice.”
Meanwhile, TIK is milking the brouhaha by raising funds. It says on its website: “If the Board members don’t agree with our position, the question may eventually be put to the federal courts — a move that would ensure justice prevails, but would potentially come at a significant cost for TIK.”
What could also prevail is that the NEB will be very cautious in the future about engaging with Canadians, eroding their interest in shaping and participating in the regulatory process.