NEB cancels full week of Montreal's Energy East hearings after protest

The National Energy Board says it won't be holding any hearings into the Energy East pipeline project this week in Montreal following Monday's protest and calls for two of its commissioners to step down.

Break will be used to review calls to dump 2 commissioners who met with ex-premier Jean Charest

Protesters gathered Monday outside the building where NEB hearings on the proposed Energy East pipeline were scheduled to take place in downtown Montreal. (Charles Contant/Radio-Canada)

The National Energy Board says it won't be holding any hearings into the Energy East pipeline project this week in Montreal following Monday's protest and calls for two commissioners to step down.

The announcement comes as the federal review board faces a flurry of criticism over a meeting between two of its commissioners and former Quebec premier Jean Charest while he was working for TransCanada, the company heading the Energy East project.

"The decision has been made as a result of a violent disruption on the first day of the proceedings and ongoing security concerns," the federal review board said in a statement Tuesday afternoon after three protesters were arrested at Monday's hearings.

The NEB wrote that "disruptions like this one compromise the board's ability to conduct the session in a secure manner and also prevent interveners from having an opportunity to be heard, sharing their views and asking questions. All participants in this hearing have a right to be heard and with respect."

Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr said Tuesday he was hopeful that the process would resume as soon as possible, but in the wake of the revelations about the NEB meeting with Charest, he also reiterated that the NEB is an independent body and separate from the federal government.

"Our interest is in making sure that the process continues and that the Canadians who have an opinion have the right and freedom to say it," he said.

A demonstrator confronts Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre at Monday's public hearing. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

But hearings will not resume until it has made a decision regarding two motions to recuse two of its panel members from the hearings, the NEB said.

The motions were filed by environmental groups that took issue with revelations about Charest's meeting with the NEB. 

The NEB is accepting written comments on these motions until Sept. 7 and "will not proceed with further panel sessions until it reaches a decision."

In a statement of its own, TransCanada said it "will wait for the NEB to provide guidance on how it plans to proceed."

'Pull the plug'

Environmental groups, meanwhile, again pressed the NEB to remove the commissioners who met with Charest. 

"We maintain that the commissioners have to recuse themselves immediately, for an independent investigation to be called, and for the NEB to completely [be] overhauled before the hearings into Energy East can continue," Patrick Bonin, a spokesman for Greenpeace Canada, said in a statement.

The proposed pipeline would carry 1.1 million barrels of crude oil per day from the Alberta oilsands to the East Coast. (CBC)

Environmental Defence's Patrick Derochie said the NEB's decision to suspend proceedings showed the review process for major energy projects is "completely broken."

"There were serious doubts about the Energy East review from the get-go," he said in a statement. 

"Now is the time for the federal government to pull the plug."

'Major perception problem'

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre called last week for the NEB hearings to be halted, saying the reports involving Charest created a "major perception problem" for the review board. 

"I'm not sure of the impartiality of the process," he said last Thursday.

Former Quebec premier Jean Charest has been working as a consultant for TransCanada. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

NEB officials declined an interview request on Tuesday.

Marc-Andre Plouffe, an NEB director at its Montreal office, has said the meeting was part of efforts to learn how to engage with the province.

He said the federal regulator met with Quebec representatives from a wide range of groups. These included representatives from environmental groups as well as Coderre and Charest.

Plouffe said the board wasn't aware of any ties Charest had with any particular company when the meeting took place.

The federal review board must decide whether to approve TransCanada's bid to build the 4,500-kilometre pipeline that would transport crude oil from Alberta to Eastern Canada.

The Montreal hearings were slated to run until Friday.

Hearings are also scheduled to be held in several other cities, including Quebec City, before concluding in Kingston, Ont., in December.

The NEB must submit its report by March 2018 after which the federal cabinet will have the final say on the project.

With files from Allison Dempster