New NEB rules aren’t credible coming from a government committed to building pipelines

Image description: a group of twenty to thirty people march down a sidewalk holding homemade signs protesting the tar sands and pipelines. (Image credit: Fibonacci Blue/Flikr)

Image description: a group of around thirty people march down a sidewalk holding signs (mostly homemade) protesting the tar sands and pipelines. (Image credit: Fibonacci Blue/Flickr)

Earlier this week, the Trudeau government announced that it would be instituting new principles for ongoing reviews of pipeline projects like Energy East and Northern Gateway by the National Energy Board (NEB). These changes, Minister of the Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna said, were required to “rebuild Canadians’ trust in our environmental assessment processes” and to “take into account the views and concerns of Canadians, respect the rights and interests of indigenous peoples and support our natural resources sector.”

Setting aside the worrying implication that the current review process didn’t already perform basic consultative tasks, there was a troubling indication at the heart of the government’s rhetoric which completely undercuts their insistence that they want to build confidence in the NEB’s ability to reach scientifically sound and community-supported decisions:

[National Resources Minister Jim] Carr said the process will provide pipeline proponents greater certainty about the time involved in reaching decisions.

“If we’re going to attract the investments we need to sustainably develop our energy resources, then we have to better engage Canadians, conduct deeper consultations with indigenous peoples and base decisions on science, facts and evidence,” Carr said.

Did you catch it? It’s surrounded by caveats and reassurances, but it’s there – the assumption that the government must somehow find a way to facilitate the development of energy resources. (Note also McKenna’s statement above that the changes to the NEB process will “support our natural resources sector”.)

This is far from a one-off from Trudeau’s ministers. In fact, it’s been somewhat of a refrain for Jim Carr. Just look at this Canadian Press interview from a few weeks back, titled Government will ‘get it right’ on getting oil, gas to tidewater, says Carr:

Carr’s mandate includes expanding market access for oil and gas — a highly polarizing public policy debate — and his challenge comes amid a global oil glut that is cratering international prices and killing investment in Alberta’s oilpatch…

“It’s important that we move as quickly as we can while being responsible — by ensuring that we’ve consulted with people who are part of the movement going forward to ensure that Canada is able to move its resources to market sustainably,” said the minister.

All that collaboration and consultation, Carr added, must be “mindful of the importance of Canada’s competitiveness position and that moving our resources to market in a sustainable way is also part of our mandate.”

This rhetoric echoes statements that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made on the campaign trail last fall. Trudeau repeatedly accused Stephen Harper of hurting oil and gas companies’ pipeline projects with his take-no-prisoners steamroller approach, and insisted that a more conciliatory and inclusive process would help bring Canadians onside with the growth of tar-sands-exporting infrastructure.

In other words, the new government’s approach is a large dose of Sunny Ways™, the signature difference of tone that Trudeau promised would be the biggest difference between him and Harper, and not much else.

After all, you can’t credibly say that you’re trying to restore people’s faith in a process while simultaneously stressing your responsibility to ensure that that same process has a specific outcome. There’s not much meaningful difference between the HarperCons’ “get it done at any cost” attitude towards pipelines and the Trudeau Liberals’ “get it done right” approach. Carr, who worked with McKenna to devise the new rules, is far from an honest broker here, and skeptics of the NEB process have no reason to take these rules seriously if they’re coming from somebody who isn’t even pretending to want to create a process which is fair and neutral, regardless of the results it produces.

And that’s before we even begin to delve into the specifics of the reforms, which have already met with widespread condemnation from a variety of critics. Environmental organizations aren’t too pleased:

“Rather than end Stephen Harper’s pipeline reviews, this government has slapped on a new coat of paint and kicked the can on a real climate test down the road,” said Cameron Fenton,’s Canadian Tar Sands Organizer…

“A climate test on pipelines is only meaningful if it respect the commitment to 1.5ºC that Prime Minister Trudeau made in Paris, and that would mean taking pipelines and tar sands expansion off the table. There’s no such thing as a climate friendly pipeline. The science is crystal clear: in order to prevent catastrophic climate change, fossil fuels, and especially tar sands, need to stay in the ground. Any ‘review’ that concludes you can build more tar sands infrastructure is nothing more than a greenwashing exercise.”

First Nations Chiefs are already lining up to oppose changes to Indigenous consultation as insufficient – changes that, ironically, they weren’t consulted on:

Canada’s national energy regulator is welcoming plans to get tougher with pipeline reviews, but regional Indigenous chiefs representing 203 First Nations in British Columbia, Manitoba and Quebec say they are not satisfied, and want the government to do more.

Noting that they were not consulted about five new principles announced by the Liberal government on Wednesday — which promised deeper consultations with Indigenous people — the First Nations chiefs said that they remained opposed to current plans for pipeline expansion…

“The process is done and it was carried out under those bogus Harper rules,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, the president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs on Thursday. “There will now be more consultation according to yesterday’s announcement but that is something that Canada is already required to do under the Constitution. What needs to be demonstrated is the federal government’s willingness to take no for an answer from First Nations like Tsleil-Waututh Nation, who are exercising their sovereign decision-making power.”

And municipal politicians from affected communities are also unimpressed:

In a telephone interview, Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan said he was “severely disappointed” in the measures, noting that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had promised during the election campaign to overhaul the environmental review process and force Kinder Morgan to resubmit its expansion proposal.

“It’s clear the oil company lobbyists and the lobbyists for the pipelines have gotten to the Liberals very quickly, and suddenly we’re hearing a very different tune from ministers and from the Prime Minister,” said Mr. Corrigan, whose community lies at the terminus of the Kinder Morgan line. “During the election, it was ‘re-start the process, the public has no faith’ … and now we’re hearing a desperation to get this oil to the shore.”

That dig about the lobbyists is a not-so-subtle reference to Dan Gagnier, Justin Trudeau’s campaign co-chair who resigned days before last October’s election after it was revealed that he was on TransCanada’s payroll throughout the campaign, with the full knowledge of the Liberal Party. While the election was ongoing, Gagnier wrote a memo to TransCanada detailing the likely shape of a Trudeau cabinet and advising them on how best to lobby a new Liberal government.

Essentially, Trudeau and his ministers have done nothing to overcome the (well-deserved) distrust that many people have in the NEB process, and in his government’s ability to be an honest broker on this issue. And that’s in large part due to the glaring contradiction at the heart of their proposal.

Aiming to create a process people will trust while also striving for a specific outcome of that process is, quite simply, not credible. As long as the rejection of a pipeline project, whether it be due to safety concerns, climate change impact, or denial of consent from affected First Nations, is not a politically acceptable outcome of the NEB process, then no change of rules or principles will be credible or taken seriously.

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