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Energy East hearings in Montreal face newfound scrutiny

After protests and a conflict-of-interest controversy, the pipeline hearings face a higher degree of examination

Oct 3, 2016

by Michael Ganley

The sight of well-meaning but naïve, ill-informed and self-righteous protestors disrupting the NEB’s Energy East hearings in Montreal in late August – the plaid-clad man who looked like John Goodman, the shocked look on Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre’s face – was so disheartening. It was disheartening not only for those who make a living in the oil and gas industry, but for anyone who wants a reasoned discussion on climate change and the things that should be done to mitigate it.

Stopping Energy East – or any other pipeline – will not slow climate change. Consumers around the world demand 95 million barrels of petroleum and other liquid fuels per day, and that demand is on the way up, not down. Which direction those fuels come from and what forms of transportation they take will be a function of market conditions. Quite simply, the four refineries (and several petrochemical plants) now operating in and around Montreal will get their feedstock, whether from Alberta or Nigeria.

In a sad irony, the scene in Montreal has made life more difficult for Alberta’s NDP government. The NDP is responsible for the series of policies – a carbon price, the mothballing of all coal-fired power plants by 2030, capping emissions from the oil sands – that have made the province a global leader in the battle against climate change. Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission recently compared the four provinces that have a carbon price or are implementing one – Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and B.C. – and concluded that Alberta will have the strongest policies based on the breadth of the activity taxed and the price per tonne. The Pembina Institute says that, taking into account actions and commitments, Alberta’s emissions are projected to fall 26 per cent by 2030 from their 2014 levels. That’s a greater percentage decrease than is expected from Quebec or Ontario, and far below B.C., which is expected to see an increase of 39 per cent.

Then, a week after the Montreal debacle, news broke that the federal government was pushing to accelerate the phase-out of coal-fired power across the country, aligning the nation with Alberta’s 2030 date. That’s a decade earlier than previously planned. Complaints came from Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, which all include coal in their power plans beyond 2030.

But Alberta’s opposition politicians jumped on the events in Montreal to argue that the NDP government’s efforts had failed to gain the social licence necessary to build a pipeline. If only the line from A to B were so straight, and if only theatrical protestors couldn’t so easily divert it.

In one final bit of disheartening news, the man in plaid may have a point. One of the concerns protestors and environmentalists have voiced is that two of the NEB’s commissioners on the file are in a conflict of interest because they met with former Quebec premier Jean Charest while he was working for TransCanada, the company heading Energy East. As of this writing, the hearings were postponed while the NEB considered a motion to have those two members recused.

It is now clear that pipeline approval hearings will face a degree of scrutiny they didn’t in the past. How could the NEB have thought it was OK to appoint two people suffering from the perception, at least, of a conflict of interest? Environmentalists have frequently accused the NEB of being in the oil and gas industry’s pocket. Well, with friends like that …

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