NEB lacks public trust, poll suggests

Highly contentious pipeline hearings, political interference and repeated changes to how it operates are two likely reasons why Canadians lack faith in the country's energy regulator.

New poll suggests half of Canadians aren't confident in the energy regulator

A man holds a sign while marching to a protest outside National Energy Board hearings on the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion in Burnaby, B.C. (Canadian Press)

Highly contentious pipeline hearings, political interference and repeated changes to how it operates are three likely reasons Canadians lack faith in the country's energy regulator.

A poll commissioned by CBC News suggests most people have little or no confidence in the National Energy Board (NEB). Regionally, support was highest in the Prairies and lowest in British Columbia and Quebec. 

"The numbers are really discouraging for the National Energy Board, no doubt about that," said Trevor McLeod, who researches natural resources policy for the Canada West Foundation, a Calgary-based think-tank. 

CBC News commissioned an online poll on the attitudes of Canadians toward energy, the economy and the environment. EKOS surveyed almost 2,100 Canadians between Feb. 16-26. 

A decade ago, few Canadians had heard of, or cared to know about, the NEB. However, as pipeline scrutiny has spiked, so has attention on the regulator.

The NEB drew much criticism over its hearings of Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline proposal. 

A number of First Nations argued there was a lack of consultation and they did not consent to the project. Lengthy proceedings and a lack of cash forced some to abandon the hearings. Environmentalists tried their best to block the project as a way to slow growth in Alberta's oilsands.

There were 77 days of community hearings and 96 days of final hearings. In the end, the NEB approved the proposal, but with 209 conditions. The decision was considered vague, because even as it granted approval, it imposed expensive conditions that are not even close to being met.

The NEB was focused on the merits of the pipeline proposal, but the hearings were often combative over issues such as First Nations consultation, climate change and oil and gas development. 

"The NEB has been in the middle of some serious national debates over the past five years," said McLeod. "Frankly, regulators are created to settle local issues between different interests.

"I feel a little bit bad for the regulator, and obviously their reputation has taken a big hit. I'm not sure to what extent they can defend themselves." 

Trevor McLeod says the NEB is in the middle of some significant national issues facing the country

8 years ago
Duration 1:02
A policy expert explains why confidence is so low in the National Energy Board.

After looking over the poll numbers showing low public confidence, a spokesman admitted the regulator has some work to do to restore faith from Canadians.

"We recognize that public trust and confidence is quite important," said the NEB's Craig Loewen. "What's going on here is we're going through a period of fairly ambitious modernization, and to a certain extent, some of the opinions match what we've heard from Canadians."

The NEB must follow the mandate it has from Parliament and operate as a quasi-judicial body, which can be problematic when people want to talk about climate change at a pipeline hearing, for instance.

"At times we are caught in that people want to talk about policy and many times it is not the venue to do it," Loewen said.

Debates over billion-dollar pipeline projects are one reason the regulator has received so much attention in the past decade. Just five years ago, the NEB received 80 calls from journalists. This year, that number will be about 700. 

Some of the complaints against the NEB are about political interference and how the regulator has changed in recent years.

The federal government can make changes to the agency's procedures as it wishes, just as the previous Conservative government and the current Liberal government have both done.

The Conservatives wanted to speed up the NEB's hearing process, and just two days before the fall 2015 election campaign began the party appointed Steven Kelly, a Kinder Morgan consultant, to the NEB's board.

With the Liberals now in charge, the new government soon brought its own changes to the review process, adding delays to projects that must go through the NEB.

Pipeline and other major energy projects are political in Canada. Ultimately, it's the government that makes the decision on these projects after the NEB makes its own recommendations — a change introduced by the Conservatives and maintained by the Liberals.

Repeated political interference could be one reason confidence in the national regulator is waning.

Meanwhile the NEB is undergoing its own modernization. It's trying to boost the public's trust by opening more offices across the country and spending more time talking with Canadians. It's launched an interactive map of all pipeline spills, and publishes inspection reports online.

"I think that kind of stuff is going to build confidence in the NEB from Canadians," said Loewen.

The regulator has a long way to go, according to the poll numbers.

"Those are underwhelming numbers," said Frank Graves, of EKOS Research.

"Nobody is expressing high confidence in the National Energy Board. It`s only 10 per cent of Canadians give it high marks or good marks," he said. "That's a pretty bad figure." 

CBC commissioned EKOS to survey how Canadians feel about the environment, economy and energy — including pipelines. This week we break down the numbers in our in-depth series.