Muddied review process or much-needed change: New Brunswickers weigh in on Bill C-69
Senate committee hears from bill supporters on both sides
The national political battle over energy, climate and pipelines returned to Saint John Thursday as a committee of senators heard from New Brunswickers how to overhaul federal regulatory reviews of major projects.
The Senate committee is holding cross-Canada hearings into Bill C-69, legislation introduced by the Trudeau government that would add new steps and more public input into the reviews.
Hanging over the hearing was the ghost of the Energy East pipeline, which would have carried Alberta oil across the country to Saint John for exporting and refining.
The cancellation of the project in 2017 was blamed on overly strict federal criteria from the National Energy Board. Energy executives say Bill C-69 will only make the burden worse.
The bill "has the potential to … create confusion and unpredictability around how projects might be developed going forward," said Irving Oil's chief financial officer Jeff Matthews.
"So that lack of clarity around how we create opportunities, how we attract investors, how we execute on projects, will lead to lost opportunities."
Energy East demise
Irving Oil was a partner with TransCanada Corp. in a proposed Energy East export terminal that would have allowed the vast majority of oil in the pipeline to be exported on ships to foreign markets.
While the new federal review criteria were blamed for Energy East's demise, economists and other experts say the more likely reason was the projections of reduced oil sands production that did not require as much pipeline capacity.
The relatively more advanced Keystone XL and Trans Mountain projects also meant there was less need for Energy East.
Even so, Matthews told the senators that a newer, more thorough regulatory process would make it harder for Irving to contemplate such big projects in the future.
"For us as an organization that looks at these opportunities every day … this has the potential to impact that," Matthews said.
Bill C-69 would undo several changes made by the Harper government in 2012 that streamlined the approval process for pipelines and other major energy projects.
The Conservative changes included limiting interventions to people or groups directly affected by the project — to avoid large numbers of activists dominating hearings and slowing them down.
The Liberal legislation reverses that change and added a new pre-assessment process and three different advisory committees, as well as more formal consultation with Indigenous people.
The federal Liberals argue that projects are more likely to win public support and be built if projects are subject to more rigorous and credible reviews with more public input.
Finding trust in the process
Saint John clean-air activist Gordon Dalzell adopted that argument Thursday in urging senators to pass the legislation.
"Yes, there will be delays, it will be cumbersome, some of these applications, but at the end of the day, after people have their say and the process is completed, I believe there will be better social acceptance and there will be better trust in the process," he said.
"It's more likely that people — even though they may not agree with it — will have to accept that yes, this decision has been made, but we did have a good process, we did have our say."
Others, however, warned of the ambiguity in the bill, which would leave some decisions about the review process up to the federal environment minister or the federal cabinet.
"In a general way, we support the concepts and the ideas that Bill 69 sets out to put in play," said Arlene Dunn of Canada's Building Trades Union.
"However Bill 69 in its current form leaves much of the substance of the bill up to a regulatory framework that currently does not exist. You are essentially asking Canadians to buy something sight unseen."
NB Power voices concern
Brett Plummer, NB Power's vice-president of nuclear energy, warned that the legislation could actually set back the public utility's efforts to further reduce how much electricity it generates from fossil fuels.
The bill would transfer and duplicate some oversight of nuclear power now under the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, Plummer said, which "could potentially result in uncertainty and duplication of regulatory oversight at the provincial and federal levels."
He said NB Power is already planning 15 years ahead in looking at new, smaller-scale and emissions-free nuclear reactors, but "this uncertainty could lead to investors going elsewhere to build their projects."
New Brunswick independent Sen. René Cormier, a committee member, said he still hasn't come to a conclusion on how he'll vote on Bill C-69.
"I'm still listening very, very carefully."
He said judging by the volume of email and phone calls his office is getting, Canadians want strong environmental safeguards but in a way that balances them with economic growth.
Running out of time
Alberta independent senator Paula Simons said the existing system passed by the Harper government is "so widely unpopular" that it's clear changes are needed.
But she said there are problems with the bill and she thinks the newfound independence of the Senate will allow it to improve the clarity and accountability of the legislation.
If the Senate votes to amend the legislation, it will have to go back to the House of Commons for a second vote before it can pass.
With an October election coming, supporters of Bill C-69 worry there won't be time for that.
"It's much better than what we have right now," said Ann Pohl of the Kent County chapter of the Council of Canadians. "Please improve it as much as you can but make sure it gets through this government."