3 impacts of NEB protests in Montreal

Protests spark debate about hot button issues surrounding pipeline construction: Here are three potential impacts to development and politics.

Protests spark debate about hot button issues surrounding pipeline construction

A demonstrator is surrounded by police officers Monday after being arrested while disrupting the National Energy Board public hearing into the proposed $15.7-billion Energy East pipeline project proposed by TransCanada Monday, in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

If the Montreal protesters who interrupted the first day of a National Energy Board hearing into the Energy East pipeline project wanted attention, then mission accomplished.

The video of men and women loudly interrupting the hearing was replayed hundreds of times on television and computer screens across the country. 

I think this will be to our detriment in the long run.- Jack Mintz, University of Calgary

The panel session was quickly shut down as one protester charged the commissioner's table and nearly knocked it over while shouting and chanting. Others held up a banner at the front of the room before police removed them.

The NEB has now postponed the Montreal hearings until at least early September. Aside from this delay, the protests are also playing into pipeline politics in at least three other ways. 

Political pressure

The federal government certainly took note of the protest.

The banner unfurled by protesters called out the prime minister for some of the remarks he made in the past about needing the support of communities before a pipeline can be constructed. 

Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr had to answer questions on Monday and Tuesday about his reaction to the demonstration, of which he expressed his disappointment.

The federal Liberals campaigned on many pledges related to pipelines including a modernization of the NEB. While some changes were introduced, critics want much more action.

"It sends a clear message that the NEB has to be stopped. The overhaul that was promised must be done so that we can come forward with a proper process that Canadians can respect," said Robyn Allan, a B.C. economist who participated in the hearings for the Northern Gateway project.

"I think what we are seeing in Quebec is that everything is elevated because there has been more and more broken promises by the government that was elected to protect us." 

Montreal protester takedown

6 years ago
Duration 0:36
NEB's Energy East hearings in Montreal stormed by protesters and security tackles the most difficult one first

International reputation

Natural resource development requires a significant amount of investment, regardless of whether extracting diamonds, coal, or potash. That's why Canada has relied on foreign companies from the United States, Norway, France, Australia and elsewhere to commit billions of dollars in this country.

The oilsands in particular are not cheap to develop. Facilities cost billions of dollars up front.

Investments in the oilsands haven't always paid off for foreign companies, which is one reason why capital spending in Alberta has slowed dramatically in recent years (along with changing regulations and commodity prices).

One reason any company would hesitate to invest in Alberta's oil industry is the limited export pipeline capacity. The protests reinforced the considerable uncertainty about future construction. Opposition stalled the Northern Gateway project and is now a major factor in decisions surrounding the Energy East and Trans Mountain expansion proposals.

Investors want world prices for the oil they produce, but without space to export, they have to sell it at a discount within North America.

"We have a long process to get these things done. We have political processes that give a lot of uncertainty to people who are trying to make investments because things can get undermined politically rather than following a clear regulatory process," said Jack Mintz, of the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary and an Imperial Oil board member. "I think this will be to our detriment in the long run."

Companies have also struggled to construct liquefied natural gas export facilities in B.C. because of politics, regulators, commodity prices and public opposition.

"Are we going to get a reputation internationally that we can't build anything in this country? The United States has been laying thousands of miles of pipelines over the last several years," Mintz said.

Canadian attitudes

While pipelines are said to be the safest way of transporting oil, opposition lingers in this country. Earlier this year, a poll found about 40 per cent of Canadians don't want any new pipelines constructed.

With every protest that occurs, the needle may be moving higher. 
A poll done earlier this year found about 40 per cent of Canadians don't want any new pipelines constructed. (CBC/EKOS Research)

"This brings up all of the old touch points and real visceral hot button issues," said Bruce Cameron, with Social Media ROI, an online research company. 

This week's protest sparked debate about energy, environment and First Nations issues, in addition to Quebec's relationship with the federal government. It's a volatile mix.

"For most of 2016, Canadians have been becoming more positive or pragmatic about about pipelines particularly because of the concerns about the economy," said Cameron. "This is certainly a step or two back, but I think it will be a temporary one. People's sentiment towards pipelines has shifted from a knee-jerk opposition to 'let's hear the pros and cons of this and make a rational decision.'"

The protesters do run the risk of backlash to their demonstration, said Cameron, because it disrupted an actual debate and voicing of opinions about the Energy East project. The hearings are a way for people to have the freedom to express their opinion, regardless of their position and walk of life. The room in Montreal had dozens of people waiting their turn to speak about Energy East, but ended up being sent home before they got a chance.


Kyle Bakx


Kyle Bakx is a Calgary-based journalist with CBC's network business unit. He's covered stories across the country and internationally.


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