Reforms of the pipeline review process have literally satisfied nobody

Image description: A banner reading "NO PIPELINES" is suspended from pine trees in a forested area. (Image credit: YouTube/Kahsatstenhsera)

Image description: A banner reading “NO PIPELINES” is suspended from pine trees in a forested area. (Image credit: YouTube/Kahsatstenhsera)

The Liberal government’s release of new guidelines for the pipeline review process a few weeks ago was meant to end furious feuding over the future of Canada’s oil and gas sector. The National Energy Board (NEB) reforms came hot on the heels of a nasty debate over Energy East, as the rejection of the pipeline by Montreal-area mayors was absurdly spun as a threat to national unity. The reforms were also delivered in the context of continual pressure on the new government by activists frustrated with Trudeau & Co’s delays in following through on campaign promises to fix what was widely viewed as a broken process.

The reforms, announced at a joint press conference by Minister of Natural Resources Jim Carr and Minister of the Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna, aimed 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.”

But if the government expected their announced reforms to actually create trust in the NEB process or to do anything to cool down the overheated pipeline debate, they must be sorely disappointed. Two weeks later, it’s now clear that their proposed reforms have satisfied literally nobody, and the squabbling over pipeline proposals looks set to carry on indefinitely.

Just look at the wave of opposition to various proposed pipelines that’s arisen in the days since the government tried to calm everybody down with their (hastily-thrown-together?) reform package: 

Literally one day after the Liberals announced the changes to the NEB reviews, the Iroquois Caucus, representing half a dozen First Nations across Ontario and Quebec, announced their opposition to the Energy East pipeline. They were joined by the chief of the Wolastoq Grand Council in New Brunswick, who emphasized the risks the project poses to the region’s lakes and rivers.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the B.C. Union of Indian Chiefs slammed the government’s revised NEB process, saying the changes were “very minor” and calling for a total suspension of the reviews of Trans Mountain and Northern Gateway. And British Columbia unions vowed to team up with First Nations to fight pipelines in that province, arguing that the provincial and federal governments have failed miserably when it comes to properly consulting Indigenous peoples about pipeline projects.

Additionally, the city of Vancouver formally called on the NEB to reject Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline. (Funny, I must have missed Brad Wall’s statement denouncing Vancouver’s affront to national unity…) The city’s lawyers argued that the risks of a spill are too great and that the project is not in the public interest; the decision was the result of over two years of public consultation and intensive in-depth study. Vancouver now joins the city of Burnaby and the province of British Columbia in opposing Trans Mountain.

Environmental activists haven’t been too pleased with the reforms either  – denunciation of the new NEB review process has been widespread. 74 different environmental advocacy organizations urged Prime Minister Trudeau to reject any new pipelines in an open letter,* and some organizations have been particularly pointed in their criticisms.

And again, that’s all just in the few weeks since Trudeau & Co tried to “fix” things. There was already a lot of widespread resistance to proposed pipelines, including that of Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, who said TransCanada failed to do its homework on Energy East and had made a rotten proposal.

(TransCanada tried to butter up the mayor last week by announcing a partnership with a Quebec-based company to do construction work on the line, claiming it would bring over 120 jobs to the region. But they perhaps failed to realize that they were playing with the pros when it comes to construction-related government bribery – Coderre basically laughed off the announcement and pissed all over their hyped-up projections: “”We’re talking 33 jobs, five in Quebec, and we’re talking about…an impact of $2 million a year. Is it worth it?” Coderre told reporters at city hall on Wednesday.”)

Meanwhile, pipeline proponents are also outraged with the government – for not doing enough to promote pipelines! Brad Wall says Trudeau should openly support Energy East just like Harper did – cause it worked out so well for Steve, didn’t it? (Relatedly: I’m considering launching a side project called Shit Brad Wall Says – do y’all think there would be any interest in such a thing?) A Postmedia editorial (*shudder*) accuses Trudeau of deliberately stalling on Energy East just like Obama did on Keystone XL, and makes bald and unsubstantiated assertions like “The wish to control the Canadian oil industry for his political base runs deep in the Trudeau family.” And oil lobbyists are having a sad that people are opposed to their pipeline plans, saying that their treatment at the hands of pipeline resisters amounts to “abuse”.

Amidst all this upheaval, the government remains resolutely committed to its half-assed course. Natural Resource Minister Jim Carr stands firmly by the new rules, although he knows which way he wants this process to end:

Federal Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr delivered almost everything a Calgary business crowd wanted to hear Friday [February 5], though he stopped short of endorsing a specific oil export pipeline project currently proposed in Canada.

Carr was seated at a table with pipeline executives Russ Girling, the CEO of TransCanada, and Ian Anderson, the CEO of Kinder Morgan. Both companies have multi-billion dollar proposals to export Alberta oil.

“We are going to create the best chance for these projects to be reviewed, and those decisions will hold the confidence of Canadians, and cabinet will determine [if it’s] in the national interest,” said Carr. “The prime minister’s goal is to get our resources to tidewater sustainably.”

Carr told the audience he has confidence and optimism that the government will find a way for new pipelines to be constructed. It was the best he could offer the Calgary crowd.

“He just didn’t say ‘I’m there to be your cheerleader,'” said Adam Legge, head of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, which organized the sold-out event in the city’s downtown. “It’s not the perfect answer, but it’s a pretty good one.”

For those of you keeping score at home: Carr helped to craft the rules that will decide whether or not the pipelines are approved, and he thinks the government will find a way to get done in the end, but he won’t be a “cheerleader”. Right.

A few things have become crystal clear in the past few weeks. The Liberal government’s wishy-washy campaign statements may have fooled NDP supporters into voting for them, but now that they’re in power and have to make decisions, they’re not surprisingly coming down on the side of the oil and gas industry. The fact that several more right-wing politicians see this as a betrayal of pipelines is more evidence of their short-sightedness than anything else – Trudeau is aiming to put a softer, gentler, more consultative face on pipeline reviews, and in the process give them more credibility.

But, crucially, that gambit seems to have failed. The continued and increasing opposition of First Nations and municipal leaders across Canada to major projects like Energy East, Trans Mountain and Northern Gateway speaks to a complete lack of confidence in the NEB process, reforms or no. If anything, the new review guidelines have only hardened the battle lines in this struggle.


*There were, however, some big names in the green NGO world that didn’t sign the letter. Now that there are governments in Ottawa and Edmonton willing to at least take some action on climate change, however symbolic and half-assed, it looks like the environmental activist community is dividing into collaborationists and confrontationalists. For instance, ForestEthics Advocacy, Environmental Defence and the Pembina Institute were three prominent green groups which didn’t sign the letter, and, not coincidentally, all three worked with the Alberta government to help craft its woefully inadequate compromise-laden “climate change plan” which allows for significant tar sands expansion and pipeline construction. (To be fair, Equiterre, which was also involved in those behind-closed-doors negotiations with the Alberta government and the O&G industry, did sign the letter.)

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