All three members of the National Energy Board's panel on the proposed Energy East pipeline have stepped down, weeks after a flurry of criticism erupted during hearings in Montreal.
In a statement released late Friday afternoon, the NEB said that "all three panel members have decided to recuse themselves in order to preserve the integrity of the National Energy Board and of the Energy East and Eastern Mainline Review. The members acted in good faith."
Chair Peter Watson and vice-chair Lyne Mercier also recused themselves from administrative duties.
The news comes about two weeks after hearings in Montreal over the Energy East Pipeline were cancelled.
Protesters stormed the room before hearings were set to begin. There were also calls to dump two commissioners who met with former Quebec premier Jean Charest while he was working for TransCanada, the company heading the Energy East project.
"The Energy East and Eastern Mainline hearing is adjourned until a new panel is appointed. Once a new panel is appointed, the review of the two project applications can and will proceed," the statement says.
Call for inquiry
There are also two requests before the NEB:
That the panellists who attended meetings with Charest be removed.
And that the newly assigned panel hold an inquiry into the meetings.
The NEB says that the government's process to find new panel members has already begun, with the following pre-requisites.
"New panel members must not only be free of apprehension of bias but also be proficient in both official languages."
'A good decision,' Montreal mayor says
Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, who has previously called for the hearings into the Energy East pipeline to be suspended over the Charest affair, called today's news a "good decision."
"[NEB president Peter] Watson and all the people who work on that file just sent a strong message that they've been doing their homework, and it's a good decision," he said at a news conference Friday evening in Montreal.
"I've been saying since Day 1 that I trust the NEB, and I clearly trust also its president, Mr. Peter Watson.…Watson showed that he is a man of integrity and the decision that he made was for the integrity of the institution," Coderre said. "He understands the importance of that issue and the importance of the process itself."
Overhaul needed, Équiterre says
But for Quebec environmental group Équiterre, the news that Watson and Mercier are recusing themselves is worrisome.
"In theory, he's the one who would be appointing the new panel, so if he's not involved anymore in this, who will?" Steven Guilbeault, senior director of Équiterre, told CBC.
Guilbeault called the NEB's process "fatally flawed."
"The NEB has clearly demonstrated in the last few weeks that it cannot do the work the Trudeau government expects from it. The hearings have to be suspended until the law governing the NEB, federal environmental assessments, and public consultations have been overhauled."
Meanwhile, TransCanada said it respects the NEB's decision.
"We look forward to the sessions resuming and a respectful and constructive dialogue with Canadians about Energy East," said spokesman Tim Duboyce.